Darren Hauck/Getty Images
A colony of human embryonic stem cells is seen on a computer monitor hooked up to a microscope at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
A colony of human embryonic stem cells is seen on a computer monitor hooked up to a microscope at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Darren Hauck/Getty Images
The Obama administration has lifted some restrictions on stem cell research. Scientists say the new rules will give them a lot more freedom to do research that could one day lead to better treatments for injuries and disease.
Eight years ago, President George W. Bush came up with a policy that allowed federal dollars to pay for some stem cell research — but only using about 20 stem cell lines that had existed before August 2001. In the years since, says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, scientists have learned to make much better stem cell lines. But those didn't meet approval for federal funds.
"And so this created a real dilemma for somebody who was interested in starting to do stem cell research. The instinct would be to start using the newer, improved lines, but the problem was those lines would be ineligible for federal funding," says Kriegstein, who runs the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. He says the new rules catch up with the improved technology.
Dr. Raynard Kington, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health, announced the new guidelines. He said they'll allow federal funding for work on stem cells that come from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization at fertility clinics — but only in cases where the embryos were created specifically to make a baby and where there is clear consent from the donors that the leftover embryos can be used for stem cell research.
The rules also create ways for scientists to get approval to keep using older stem cell lines — including ones that had been approved under the Bush administration guidelines — and to get a similar approval to work on lines that have been approved by foreign governments that use similar standards.
Kington said the new guidelines would be reviewed over time to make sure that they keep up with advances in technology. "We will be, at the direction of the president's executive order, reviewing on a regular basis the evolution of the science and the discussion in the broader society of the ethical issues," he said. "And when we believe that there is a compelling need, we will update these regulations."
One thing that won't be allowed: therapeutic cloning. That's the controversial practice in which scientists obtain stem cells by cloning a human embryo. But scientists now think they may be able to one day use skin cells — not embryonic stem cells — to create cloned human tissue or even a complete human organ.
A draft of the rules was proposed in April and generated 49,000 comments, from scientists, medical and religious organizations, members of Congress and the public. The final rules take effect Tuesday.