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New details on Obama's stem cell policy revealed

April 17, 2009 |  2:16 pm

All stem cells derived from excess fertility clinic embryos will be eligible for federal funding under the Obama administration’s new stem cell policy, which was unveiled today.

Stemcell When the president signed an executive order last month lifting his predecessor’s unpopular funding restrictions – which limited money to about 20 stem cell lines that were created before August 2001 – he said he would leave it to the National Institutes of Health to fill in the details. This morning in Bethesda, Md., NIH officials said they intend to make research money available to scientists who work on stem cells made from embryos that are no longer needed for fertility treatments and would otherwise be thrown away.

The proposed policy would make it much easier for scientists to work on hundreds of new cell lines, including some that have been derived from embryos known to have genetic diseases (in fact, that’s why couples declined to implant them). Under the Bush policy, scientists were allowed to work on any human embryonic stem cell lines they wanted as long as none of their supplies – including equipment, lab space or salaries for personnel – were paid for with federal dollars.

Some scientists would also like to get federal funding to try to make stem cells that are genetically matched to patients using a technique called nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning. To do that, they first need to figure out how to make embryos that are clones of specific patients, then turn those embryos into stem cells.

But a federal law prohibits the government from spending money to create embryos solely for research purposes, and legal experts say Congress would have to overturn that law before the NIH could even consider funding that kind of work.

It doesn’t sound like the Obama administration is eager to do that anyway. In announcing the new policy, acting NIH Director Raynard Kingston emphasized that making use of excess fertility clinic embryos is the only approach that has broad support in Congress and the general public. The policy is in line with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s rules, as well as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which was passed twice by Congress and vetoed twice by Bush.

The draft guidelines will be published in the Federal Register sometime next week, followed by a 30-day public comment period. (A link for submitting comments online will be made available then; comments can also be mailed to: NIH Stem Cell Guidelines, MSC 7997, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892-7997.) The NIH expects to finalize the funding rules in July.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: A researcher removes a colony of stem cells from an incubator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Credit: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

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