Alan J. Lewis, JDRF president and chief executive, "applauded" the new guidelines. "We particularly want to commend the NIH for including in the guidelines a provision under which existing stem cell lines derived in an ethically responsible manner would be eligible for federally funded research," he said in a news release. "This provision will ensure that a process is in place so researchers can build on the stem cell advancements made to date and accelerate research on cell lines with the greatest potential to facilitate treatment of the disease."
Embryonic stem cells are the most basic human cells, believed to be capable of growing into any type of cell in the body. Working as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells. The scientific hope is that stem cells may, at some point in the future, become capable of treating a variety of diseases and conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries, according to the NIH.
Stem cell research received a boost in January when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever human trial using embryonic stem cells as a medical treatment. Geron Corp., a California-based biotech company, was given permission to implant embryonic stem cells in eight to 10 paraplegic patients who can use their arms but cannot walk.
The new guidelines take effect Tuesday. The NIH will create and make available a registry of approved stem cell lines.
"There will be an opportunity to work with a lot more cells under these guidelines," Sanberg said. "But as scientists, we clearly need to continue to think about the ethical issues."
National polls continue to find that the majority of Americans favor embryonic stem cell research, although some surveys have found that support has declined somewhat in recent years.
Many people object to the use of embryonic stem cells, contending that the research requires the destruction of potential life because the cells must be extracted from human embryos.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on the new stem cell guidelines.
SOURCES: Paul R. Sanberg, Ph.D., director, Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, University of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa; July 6, 2009, The New York Times; American Society for Reproductive Medicine, news release, July 6, 2009; Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, news release, July 6, 2009; National Institutes of Health (http://stemcells.nih.gov)