NIH Opens Door to Stem Cell Research

The federal government moved a step closer to funding research on some human stem cells today, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released draft guidelines covering the controversial research. Scientists hope to use stem cells, which can develop into nearly any type of tissue in the body, to treat a variety of diseases as well as to study basic biology (ScienceNOW, 30 November).

Stem cells have been controversial because scientists derive them from early embryos or from fetal tissue. Currently, federal law allows the NIH to fund research on aborted fetal tissue but prohibits grants for any investigation that harms a human embryo. Earlier this year, a lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services--NIH's parent agency--ruled that the law did not apply to stem cell lines originally derived from an embryo but maintained in the lab, however, as these cells cannot develop into a viable fetus (ScienceNOW, 19 January).

In accordance with that decision, the new guidelines would allow scientists to use NIH funds for research on cell lines isolated from embryos as long as the cells were derived by privately funded researchers who followed a set of ethical guidelines. For example, they must derive their cell lines only from frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments and must not create embryos for research. Federally funded scientists would also be free to derive new cell lines from aborted fetal tissue and to work on those cells, as long as they followed ethical standards already in place for other fetal tissue research. To ensure compliance with NIH rules, the guidelines establish a Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Review Group, which would evaluate any newly derived cell lines.

The guidelines include "a lot of hoops to jump through" for scientists wanting to work with stem cells, says Timothy Leshan, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology; nonetheless, he says, they are "a good step forward." NIH will accept comments on the draft through the end of January. Once the final guidelines are in place, the NIH will begin accepting proposals for work on pluripotent cells, says Lana Skirboll, the NIH's associate director for science policy. She predicts that the first grants could be funded as soon as next spring.