Q&A: Stem cell study enters new era

Although the Bush administration funded some human embryonic stem cell research, a 1996 law precludes federal funding of "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed," which opponents such as Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have argued makes it illegal.

Over 12 years, this law forced both political leaders and scientists to walk a fine line. Neither the Bush nor Clinton administration interpreted this to mean that funds couldn't be granted to stem cell lines already created.

A bipartisan stem cell research bill vetoed by Bush in 2006 and 2007, likely up for vote again soon, would override this law.

Q: How much federal money are we talking about?

A: The National Institutes of Health estimates it provided $938 million in research grants to stem cells in 2008, with $88 million of it going to human embryonic stem cell research. An extra $10 billion of the recent stimulus bill funds went to the NIH as well, and some portion will go to stem cells research.

"We just want a fair shot at funding; we aren't asking for special treatment," says stem cell researcher George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston.

Q: How will researchers apply for this money?

A: Through the NIH, which receives applications three times yearly and makes awards based on expert evaluation of proposals. Science policy expert Aaron Levine of Georgia Tech University in Atlanta says top-rated cell labs will likely make advances more quickly, particularly those looking at cells that bear genetic markers for inherited diseases.

Q: Will there be benefits to researchers besides money?

A: Some stem cell labs have been literally split into private and federally supported halves, forcing researchers to duplicate equipment and personnel to do disease research, in some cases putting "hands off" stickers on equipment purchased with private money.

"I will immediately be able to have my NIH-funded graduate students get to work on important disease research they were barred from undertaking," says Harvard's Kevin Eggan.

Also, the NIH will become the effective coordinator of basic stem cell research, playing its traditional role in U.S. research.

Q: How long will it take for the impact to be seen?

A: Results usually appear a few years after funds are provided for experiments, says Harvard's Kevin Casey. "We're going to have to work to catch up to the rest of the world." The United Kingdom and Singpore have become centers of embryonic stem cell research since the 2001 funding restrictions on U.S. research.

Q: What about the embryonic stem cell look-alikes generated from adult cells, the so-called induced pluripotent stem cells?

A: These cells, which look very promising for stem cell research, were already eligible for funding under the old policy, although they were isolated from human tissues only in 2007. Researchers such as Eggan say that combined with embryonic research, advances in iPS cells should come even faster, the two cell types providing reinforcing insight into the biology of cell specialization.

Q: What benefits do researchers expect from studying more cell lines?

A: First, the opportunity to study disease-specific cell lines should give researchers insight into how these diseases originate in the body on a cellular level, shining light on the exact genetic defects behind diseases.

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