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President Obama's stem cell policy has been in place for a year. It was supposed to make it easier for researchers to use federal funds to study stem cells from human embryos. But now scientists are facing an ironic situation. Some of the stem cells that were OK to study under the Bush administration are now off-limits. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Julie Baker is a geneticist at Stanford University. She recently applied for a new grant from the National Institutes of Health. It's all done online. She filled out the forms, tried to submit them. But Baker kept getting an error message.
Dr. JULIE BAKER (Geneticist, Stanford University): So then, of course, I panicked.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BAKER: You know, we had to try and figure out what was going on.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This was the trouble: Her application said her lab would be using a stem cell line called H9.
Dr. BAKER: It looks like the H9 line - which is the line that we use for 99 percent of our work - is no longer on the NIH registry.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The NIH registry is important. It lists the only human embryonic stem cell lines that can be studied with federal money. Under the Bush administration, H9 was on that list, so lots of researchers used it. But H9 is not on a new list put in place under President Obama's policy, which was supposed to loosen restrictions.
Dr. BAKER: It's a huge setback, because we've spent about six years studying the biology of that particular line.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baker says she's baffled by this turn of events. Labs can't switch cell lines overnight. It takes months to get new cells growing. Lots of experiments will have to be redone.
Dr. BAKER: I mean, for 10 years, the government told us to use a handful of lines. And now they're telling us we can't use those lines. So they've just wasted millions of dollars and lots of resources. It just seems outrageous to me.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And H9 isn't the only cell line from the Bush years that's missing from the new list.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER SCOTT (Director, Stanford University's Program on Stem Cells in Society): It's interesting to see that of the original 18 lines, only one has made it onto the new stem cell bank, which we could call the Obama bank.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Christopher Scott directs Stanford University's Program on Stem Cells in Society. He says the whole field of stem cell science has been built up a handful of lines from the old list.
Mr. SCOTT: If these lines are not grandfathered and put on the registry, then we'll be back to the Bush years, where researchers will have to be very, very careful about setting up their labs in two pieces.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: With one side federally funded work, and the other for cells that aren't on the list.
To try to understand what's happening, I spoke with Francis Collins, the head of the NIH. He says the new policy does give federally funded scientists access to more stem cell lines.
Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS: (Director, National Institutes of Health): There are 43 approved lines, and there are 115 more that have been submitted that are in the works of being reviewed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To checks things like whether embryos were donated with proper informed consent. And it turns out this review process is the critical sticking point for the old cell lines. Collins says to be consistent, the old cells can't be grandfathered in. Nothing gets on the new list without an ethical review. But only a few of the Bush-era lines have been submitted for that.
Dr. COLLINS: We certainly have done everything we can think of to encourage those who developed those lines to submit the information.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's eager to get a submission for the popular stem cell line H9.
Dr. COLLINS: We have been hearing for weeks that an application for H9 is imminent, and frankly, we're kind of frustrated that we haven't seen it yet. So you should talk to the folks who derived that line and find out why they haven't done it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Those folks would be the WiCell Research Institute linked to stem cell science at the University of Wisconsin. It did apply for and get NIH approval for one of their old lines. Executive director Erik Forsberg says that line was made with an embryo from the University of Wisconsin. So they had documents for the NIH application. But he said H9 and some of the other old lines came from embryos collected elsewhere.
Mr. ERIK FORSBERG (Executive director, University of Wisconsin): So we have to work with another group to obtain the correct documents, which is what we're doing now.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He declines to name that group. But it's clear from a published research paper that the embryos came from a scientist at a medical center in Israel.
I called him to see if he knew what was holding up the application. In a brief conversation, he said it's a matter of paperwork. I said, scientists are worried that they'll no longer be able to use these important cells. He said, tell them they will.
Back at Stanford University, though, Julie Baker feels like she has to start getting some other stem cell lines.
Ms. BAKER: Just for backup, just in case H9 disappears altogether, which would be tragic, from our point of view.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says she hopes that won't happen, but right now, she has no way to know.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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