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Stem cell research receives federal aid

By Max Schneider

April 16, 2009 11:04 p.m.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order last month to lift a long-standing ban on federal funding and oversight for stem cell research, indicating a shift from former President George Bush’s opposition to the field.

The lifting of the Bush administration’s ban opens the path for the National Institute of Health, a leading government regulatory agency that offers scientific grants, to add stem cells to the other research it oversees.

The United States has now joined 34 other countries that allow and support stem cell research, said Ruha Benjamin, a post-doctoral fellow in the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics.

Obama has instructed the National Institute of Health to develop new regulations on stem cell research, which currently differ from state to state.

The executive order will help researchers by potentially distributing more funds and standardizing the oversight of their work, said Steven Peckman, the associate director of UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research.

“Bush’s terms left a void in federal oversight of stem cell research,” Peckman said. “This void over the last eight years created a national patchwork of rule-making.”

Currently, California stem cell researchers are governed by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, an oversight and funding agency established by the passing of 2004’s Proposition 71, which legalized stem cell research in California.

UCLA’s stem cell center is funded partially as a chancellor’s initiative through grants from the CIRM and also from several large donations, such as a $20 million contribution from the Broad Foundation. It would be able to expand its operations through funding from the NIH, Peckman said.

In addition to a lack of federal funding, research using stem cells was constrained by Bush’s ban because of the inability of researchers to collaborate due to a fear of losing federal support, Peckman said.

“That’s been a major hindrance,” he said.

April Pyle, an assistant professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics who works within the center, said that cross-national collaboration is essential to the research process.

“It’s difficult to do these types of collaborations with people who can’t work with the same (stem cell) lines that we can,” Pyle said. “It’s imperative that (the) NIH backs stem cell research so that everyone is on an equal playing field.”

These cells are useful to researchers because of their ability to potentially turn into any kind of human tissue, be it a heart cell, liver cell or the building block of any other organ, Peckman said.

He added that by experimenting on these cell lines, scientists hope to find treatments and cures for such illnesses as leukemia, heart disease and diabetes.

This type of research, which aims to produce drugs and medicine for public use, is what the CIRM supports most strongly, whereas the NIH is more concerned with basic research, the goal of which is not necessarily to develop usable products, said Don Gibbons, the chief communications officer at CIRM.

But Benjamin said that researchers sponsored by the CIRM may be prematurely encouraged to test therapies that need more exploration, which could put patients at undue risk.

Others noted that the immense medical potential of this field of study dictates that it should be further explored.

Alan John, a third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, has worked in Pyle’s lab for three years and said that he was excited to hear about Obama’s executive order.

“I think it’s about time,” John said, whose work involves examining how a certain gene loses control over the way it divides. “After I realized the potential of stem cells, in terms of curing diseases, I’m surprised we haven’t invested more of our time and resources.”

The change in attitude by the Obama administration could lead to more open commitment and greater federal legitimacy of this field of research, Peckman said.

“Instead of carving it out as an exception, (the executive order) makes it part of the general rule,” he said. “That will help everybody.”

But Benjamin said that certain delays in funding for stem cell research in California actually helped the field because it led to more public discourse about it.

“There was a lot more public debate around a greater number of issues because things were going slower,” she said. “Scientists should take more time to allow the public debate to unfold.”

A conducive attitude from the federal government will do wonders for this field of research and human health in general, Pyle said.

“It’s exciting to see that Obama cares about research,” she said. “This effort and interest will open up a lot of doors to enhance funding for research.”

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