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A Conversation With Curt Civin and Bernard Siegel on the State of Stem Cell Research

researcher holds a special bottle with human embryonic stem cells SOURCE: AP/DAMIAN DOVARGANES New guidelines from the NIH will let researchers expand on important research, and, presumably, allow them to stop color-coding equipment paid for by different funding sources.
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Curt Civin and Bernard Siegel talk with Andrew Plemmons Pratt about the state of stem cell research

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Under the Bush administration’s funding guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research, colleagues in Curt Civin’s lab found themselves in some awkward situations. Civin, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, explains that some of the team’s research funding came from the state, which had more progressive rules than the previous federal guidelines. They could therefore use stem cell lines outside of those on the National Institute of Health’s approved list.

“Many of the discoveries we make, we make together,” he said, but some staffers in his lab drew paychecks from a federal training grant, whereas the state stem cell funding could only support research, not their salaries. For them, working on cell lines outside the federal guidelines would constitute a misuse of federal funds.  “Uh-oh,” Civin remembers thinking, “can’t do that.” Unable to collaborate with others in their lab, the conundrum disrupted the traditional team-oriented approach to research.

His solution to the incongruous rules was to essentially divide the lab into two color-coded halves. On one side were “blue” staffers, on the other half, the “red” staffers, and each had corresponding red and blue media for culturing cells.

That solved a functional problem, but what was to happen at the next lab meeting if researcher working with Maryland-approved cells that didn’t meet the Bush guidelines said he or she has made a step forward and could use some help to develop the work? In traditional lab culture, a colleague’s instinct might be to say, “That sounds interesting, I can help.” But again, those with salaries funded by federal dollars couldn’t help. “This constrained our natural interactions,” Civin said, “In Maryland, it also constrained our interactions with colleagues at the National Institutes of Health.”

Fortunately, the straight jacket of Bush administration rules came off in July, as new NIH guidelines went into effect, paving the way for an expansion of the number of lines available. Civin joined Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetic Policy Institute, to talk with Science Progress about the state of stem cell research and the new possibilities opened up by the Obama administration rules. Both are co-chairs of the World Stem Cell Summit, which will come to Baltimore, Maryland September 21-23.

Siegal compared the constraining effect of the NIH guidelines under Bush on the field to an orchestra that lost its conductor just moments before a performance. “You can’t underestimate the difficulty and challenges that are the result of a paucity of funding on fundamental human embryonic stem cell research over the past eight years,” he said.

Enthusiastic about the new federal rules and advances in research, Siegal warned that fights over stem cell science are not over and will continue on the state level. “The foes of embryonic stem cell research did not disappear,” he said.

To listen to the podcast of the conversation, see the audio player in the sidebar, download the mp3, or subscribe via iTunes.

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