WEDNESDAY, July 15, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced last week their new guidelines for stem cell research funding, including allowing some previously ineligible stem cell lines to receive federal grants, provided they were obtained in an ethical manner.
But, will these new rules really expand the field of stem cell research and help find new treatments, possibly even cures, for devastating diseases?
"I think that everybody felt that when President Obama issued the executive order [on stem cell research in March], the most important thing was to expand the ability to investigate more lines," said Story Landis, head of the NIH stem cell task force, and director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. And, estimates place the number of potential new stem cell lines at around 700.
Stem cells -- embryonic and adult -- offer promise in the treatment of numerous diseases, such as macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease, type 1 diabetes, Lou Gehrig's disease and heart disease, among others.
Alan Lewis, president and CEO of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said, "At JDRF, we've long been supporters of encouraging stem cell research. Opening up the opportunities to get grant funding is really going to be critical to great progress in diabetes and other diseases."
One good example of how these new guidelines may help researchers is the inclusion of what's known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, Landis said.
"The 21 lines that were eligible under President Bush only included embryos from people who were genetically normal," he said. "But since then, a number of investigators have generated lines from pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that were determined to carry a gene defect, which is important for studying diseases like cystic fibrosis. In PGD, a couple prepares for in-vitro fertilization, and it's possible to take one cell from a really early embryo to let you know which embryos are fine, and which carries two copies, in this case of a cystic fibrosis gene. While it's been possible to make lines from those embryos prior to this decision, they weren't eligible for federal money before, but they are now."
Added Meri Firpo, an assistant professor at The Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota: "Now everyone can work with these PGD lines, and this will bring a lot more people into doing research with these cells, which may move progress faster."
Under the Bush administration rules, because so few stem cell lines were available for federal research funding, separate laboratories had to be set up, as well as separate accounting systems to ensure that equipment costs and salaries for research paid for by federal money weren't used to conduct research on unapproved stem cell lines. Not surprisingly, some researchers decided to forgo stem cell research because of these restrictions.
However, the actual creation of stem cell lines is still something that can't be done with federal funding, Firpo said. Once the lines have been created -- if they're deemed to have been created in an ethical manner and they pass NIH review -- then the lines can be used for federal research.
Additionally, researchers can't use federal money for research from embryos created solely for research.
"The federal government is opening the door, but the door isn't wide open," said Susan Solomon, chief executive officer of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, a private organization that funds stem cell research.
Whether the NIH ever revisits its decision on controversial techniques for creating stem cells, Solomon said there will always likely be a need for private and state funding for stem cell research because obtaining a federal grant is a slow process.
"We have urgent patient needs right now. Every day that goes by, the clock is ticking for people with chronic illness and the federal government isn't designed to respond to that kind of urgency," she said.
Kevin Eggan, chief scientific officer for the New York Stem Cell Foundation, and an assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University, agreed with Solomon, adding, "Federal money isn't responsive to immediate needs and short timelines. Sometimes, with small, strategic infusions of money, there can be a massively changing shift in research."
For a primer on stem cells, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.