Fallout From Stem Cell Decision Continues

On Aug. 24, federal officials, scientists and advocates struggled to cope with the implications from a Federal District Court’s ruling banning federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells.

During a press conference, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, outlined the immediate effect of the ruling on stem cell researchers.

According to Collins, active grants will receive funding as originally dictated; however, no renewals will be funded.  He also said that all grants currently under review will be pulled from consideration, and no new grants will be accepted.

Collins also announced that a meeting to review the possible addition of new cell lines to the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry has been canceled.  The NIH has posted official announcements on its website.

As the NIH struggles to adapt to the new guidelines, prominent federal lawmakers are considering taking action.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NIH funding, has announced that he will hold hearings on the matter as soon as Congress returns from recess on September 16th.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., briefed fellow House Democrats on the matter to discuss any possible legislative action.  However, the specter of midterm elections in November makes any changes to the current appropriations bills unlikely.

Meanwhile, the White House emphasized its support for stem cell research, and signaled its intent to explore “all possible avenues to make sure that we can continue to do this critical lifesaving research.”

Any hope for reversing the decision quickly may ultimately lay with the court system.  The Department of Justice has given notification of its intent to appeal the ruling later this week.

In the meantime, scientists around the country continued to express their dismay at the ruling.

“Monday was a sad day for the progress of biomedical science in the United States,” said Dr. Adam Engler, a stem cell researcher at University of California, San Diego. His remarks seemed to sum up the feeling of many scientists.

ASBMB president Suzanne Pfeffer bemoaned the decision as “threaten[ing] scientific discovery vital to the search for new understanding and therapies for many diseases.”  Lisa Hughes, president of The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, agreed, stating that the decision was “a blow to the hopes of millions of patients and their families suffering from fatal and chronic diseases and disorders.”

One thought on “Fallout From Stem Cell Decision Continues

  1. Letter to ASBMB Policy blotter August 25, 2010

    Stem cell research over the past 20 years has delivered exciting advances and potentials for breakthroughs in treating difficult or previously incurable diseases . The recent action of a federal judge, resulting in curtailing of federal funds for research involving fetal tissues , was deplored by NIH Director Collins.

    However, there’s a less visible issue that might be of even greater importance to the public. The U.S. is the world leader in stem cell research and publications – leading the next nation, Japan by a 3:1 margin. But in the ratio of papers reporting stem cell TREATMENT to those for all medical research, the U.S. is at the bottom of advanced nations. Sweden and Japan are the top two (NIH web site and Google Scholar).

    The U.S. appears to currently have NO clinics or approved facilities that offer publicly available stem cell treatment – even for procedures involving autologous adult stem cells – enriched from patients’ own blood or bone marrow. In today’s (August 25) faceoff on the PBS News Hour between an attorney for the plaintiffs in the current legal controversy and a proponent for allowing research on fetal tissues, the attorney emphasized that plaintiffs had no objection to use of adult stem cells.

    So why don’t we have treatment available to the public?

    The private, German government-approved XCELL Center (with clinics in Dusseldorf and Cologne) has given some 3000 patients stem cell treatment for a variety of problems including MS and other degenerative neurological disorders (http://www.xcell-center.com/). The reported outcomes are variable but show a significant proportion of favorable outcomes.for patients. Equally important, the clinic reports treating some 3000 patients without a single reported adverse result attributable to the procedures.[see also ASBMB news]

    It is hard to avoid the conclusion that lack of U.S. treatment venues may be due in part to the likelihood that medical researchers have greater incentives in financial support, professional credentials and prestige to pursue research with clinical trials, rather than to seek to open treatment to the general public. Hospitals and clinics may have actual disincentives for proposing or seeking authorization to provide treatment in terms of increased insurance costs, potential litigation and perhaps criticism by citizens confusing adult stem cell and fetal stem cells.

    Whatever the causes of the delay in publicly available yield from decades of research, it appears as though the U.S. may be indirectly subsidizing foreign treatment venues (admittedly still limited) – while our citizens have to do with glowing media reports about potentials for breakthroughs in the future.

    It may therefore be a good idea to take a hard look at the reasons for the disproportionate delays in availability of at least adult stem cell treatment in the United States. At a time of economic weakness and controversy about the costs and outcomes of the new health insurance system, the efficiency with which NIH’s 30 + billion dollar budget is being used to achieve tangible progress in societal applications deserves attention.

    Director Francis Collins is an outstanding scientist, and also a principled man and leader. He might even (privately) welcome a requirement by Congress to conduct a review of plans and pathways to expedite delivery of promising treatment modalities to the general public. The power and prestige of leading medical research institutions might otherwise chill the idea of an independently initiated review.

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