WisBusiness: New stem cell rules slowing current research

By David A. Wise


The Obama administration’s lifting of Bush-era restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research will result in a “massive step forward” in the long term, a Milwaukee-based researcher said today. But the rollout of the new guidelines has harmed research in the short term, he said.


President Barack Obama ordered the restrictions lifted in March, and the National Institutes of Health issued rules last week regarding funding for embryonic stem cell research. Those rules include consent guidelines that could make some of the 21 lines available for funding under Bush Administration rules ineligible for new federal funding.


Dr. Steve Duncan, a Marcus Professor of Human and Molecular Genetics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, told Milwaukee Rotarians at their weekly meeting today that the failure of the NIH to grandfather in the so-called “presidential lines” has had a “tremendously detrimental effect on our research.”


“The problem is they haven’t added the presidential lines as a group of lines that we can now use,” Duncan said during a question-and-answer period. “So we can’t do any human embryonic stem cell research with new federal funds at this point. We’re hoping within the next two months that it will be relaxed, but that’s a long time in research and it’s really upsetting the way it’s been handled.”


According to the NIH, human embryonic stem cell lines created before the release of the guidelines are subject to review by an advisory committee and the method to obtain consent must meet the “core ethical principles and procedures” established in the new guidelines. This represents a relaxed standard from draft guidelines released in April.


But Duncan said that although there have been problems in the short term, the lifting of restrictions will be good in the long term.


“It will be a massive step forward,” Duncan said. “It will allow basic research to catch up with industry. You will start to see a dramatic increase in the use of these cells on a therapeutic basis.”


In response to another audience question, Duncan noted that big-money offers from California to woo Wisconsin researchers in years past may have been tempting, but fell flat for him.


“Living in California is not as appealing, by any stretch of the imagination, as living in Milwaukee,” Duncan said.  “We all have to balance our research needs with our family life and standard of living.”


“Most of us, I think, not just in Milwaukee, but also in Madison, would not leave for California,” Duncan said to applause. “But saying that, when someone throws a lot of money at you, yes, it’s very tempting.”


Duncan said the expanded funding will level the playing field when it comes to states trying to retain researchers in the face of offers from other areas.


Much of Duncan’s talk focused on the science of stem cells and research he’s been involved in that creates human liver and heart cells from stem cells derived from adult skin cells.


Duncan predicted that research will shift more toward the use of adult stem cells, not only because the research avoids the ethical questions of using embryonic cells, but also because using adult stem cells allows treatments to be derived from a patient’s own cells, which reduces the risk of a person’s immune system rejecting transplanted cells.


But Duncan noted that stem cells derived from adult cells contain mutations that occur with aging, while embryonic cells do not. Cells with fewer mutations can also be obtained from infants’ foreskins or through skin and blood samples, Duncan said.


“[B]oth types of research need to be done because we just don’t know at the moment what is going to be most valuable,” Duncan said. “In saying that, I think we have to take into account the ethical situation.”