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Thrown Back to the 90’s

Stem Cell Court Ruling Threatens U.S.-based Research

Empty lab SOURCE: Flickr/June Seita If last week's misguided injunction on federal grants for embryonic stem cell research is allowed to stand, research labs around the country using NIH money to work on potentially lifesaving cures will look like this one: empty.

In 1998, a handful of laboratories around the world were trying to generate human embryonic stem cells from five-day old embryos that had been discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics. The feat had been accomplished for mouse embryos 17 years earlier, and mouse embryonic stem cells had a tremendous, Nobel Prize-winning impact on basic and translational medical research. Unlike the mouse ES cell research, the human embryonic stem cell efforts were funded exclusively by private funds from companies.  Because of the so called Dickey-Wicker amendment, the National Institutes of Health was prohibited from providing support for the use of human embryos to make these cells.

Scientists are good at overcoming barriers, and the first human embryonic stem cell (or, hESC) lines were made in 1998 in the United States and Australia. Three years later, there were around 20 documented hESC lines in countries around the world, and on August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush decreed that federal funding would be allowed for this small number of existing lines; he recognized that hESCs were key to launching a new era in medicine—regenerative medicine.

Progress since 2001 has been nothing short of astonishing. Research using these 20 hESC lines created a foundation that led to remarkable breakthroughs that are already improving medicine. From this hESC research we learned how to turn skin cells into hESC-like cells, and how we may be able to treat diseases that are currently incurable. Knowledge about hESCs is the basis for all of regenerative medicine, including ideas about how to improve the limited abilities of adult stem cells.

Then, on August 23, 2010, after millions of dollars in NIH investment in hESC research, a pair of disgruntled scientists convinced a U.S. District Court judge to issue a preliminary injunction barring federal funding of work involving hESCs. So, a dozen years after hESC research was launched, and well into the development of therapies using these remarkable cells to improve human health, it is possible that this judgment will send us back right back to the stem cell dark age, 1998.

Why?  It’s about money. These two researchers working on adult stem cells were afraid that if the NIH continued to fund hESC research then it was going to make it harder for them to get money for themselves. This argument is ridiculous to anyone who knows anything about how the NIH works, and we fervently hope that this foolishness is resolved quickly.

But let’s look at the damage that will be done if this injunction holds. The meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, held in San Francisco this June, drew a crowd of more than 3,000 scientists from the United States and many other countries.  The society was formed in 2002 to bring together the ever-growing group of scientists whose work was sparked, directly or indirectly, by Bush’s policy. Among the scientists were the next generation, 20- and 30-somethings, who were going to lead the charge for development of hESC therapies in the future.

What will become of these scientists if the injunction stops their research? The first effect will be that some will almost immediately lose their jobs when their NIH funding is stopped. Many graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are supported by the NIH; those working with hESCs will have to find other jobs. This is terrible for the individuals, but it may be worse for the millions of people who will acquire Type I diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and suffer from strokes in the next 20 years. Without this generation of stem cell scientists, the chances of regenerative therapies for these disorders will be miniscule.

The NIH has invested money, and thousands of scientists have invested years of their lives in order to make hESC-based therapies possible. To stop now will mean that all of those dollars and all of that sacrifice will be wasted. Other countries who continue to fund hESC research will rapidly surpass our nation. China, for example, has invested greatly in hESC research. The end of U.S.-based hESC research will mean that the benefits, both medical and financial, will go elsewhere.

We can’t afford the loss of intellectual power that this injunction will bring. In 2010 it would be a tragedy to set hESC research back to 1998 in the United States while scientists in other countries (and perhaps many now working and living here who will soon alight to Asia) forge ahead.

Jeanne F. Loring is a professor and the director of the Scripps Research Institute Center for Regenerative Medicine in La Jolla, CA.

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