US: Keeping stem cell research alive

In an era of reduced federal funding in America for medical research, scientists at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle were thrilled to receive a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – the nation’s premier medical research agency.

The grant will fund stem cell research over the next five years. In fact, the university has the most federal funding for biomedical research of any public institution in the United States. The money, however, only allows research on the 21 lines of human stem cells that existed prior to 9 August, 2001, the date the administration of President George W Bush, fuelled by a conservative constituency, imposed that restriction on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

In other countries, governments provide significant federal funding for research on newer embryonic stem cell lines, which are generally viewed as necessary.

Dr Randall Moon, director of Washington’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, said treatment of diseases in humans was unlikely to occur using the currently 21 approved lines in America because they were old and could be contaminated.

Britain funds human embryonic stem cell research, said Moon, while research in European countries varied. France allows using newer lines with some restrictions while Germany, probably because of its history, prohibits any human embryonic stem cell research.

Researchers from Australia, supported by government, have made significant contributions to the field. In Asia, the Korean and Chinese governments allot millions to fund human embryonic stem cell research. Not only do the Chinese pour government money into the research, many research institutes are collaborations with western pharmaceutical companies.

Researchers in all countries adhere to western principles, including only using in vitro fertilisation cells or cells donated by informed consent from fertility clinics which would otherwise be discarded as medical waste.

Despite the restrictive research policy in America, initial funding from the NIH in 2003 established a platform that launched the core laboratory at the University of Washington (UW), said Anthony Blau, professor of medicine and hematology and co-director of the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

The laboratory is where Dr Carol Ware, a Washington associate professor of comparative medicine, cultured 14 of the 21 lines now used in all federally-funded research.

Blau was quick to point out it was Ware’s expertise culturing the finicky stem cells that enticed other researchers to get involved with the UW program. Her success with stem cells, disseminated throughout the research community, “was a selling point recently for involvement of 18 other area labs”, he said.

The four projects involve self-renewal of human embryonic stem cells and directed differentiation, particularly on heart muscle and retinal cells. For example, one of the new lab’s researchers, Dr Tom Reh, is doing work that may in the future help blind people regain sight.

His project with mice seems to indicate that the stem cells will migrate to the correct place in the retina to provide sight. Although more research is needed, Reh’s colleagues are hopeful clinical trials in people will become a reality in the next decade.

Still another project, headed by Dr Chuck Murry, converts human embryonic stem cells into heart muscle cells with the hope of some day transplanting these cells into patients who would otherwise need a heart transplant.

The biggest obstacle to transplants is rejection by the body, and scientists hope using human embryonic stem cells will eliminate or greatly reduce that possibility.

While Blau was clearly excited, he said there were huge challenges for scientists working in the field:

“To be competitive, just getting federal funds is not good enough. In order to push the boundaries in their investigations, scientists need to work with newer stem cell lines.

“Limiting the use of federal funds to research only the 21 lines that existed prior to the 2001 memo is like writing software for computers built in 2001 because it limits the scope of the research on the efficacy of stem cells to treat disease.”

Research on more recent stem cell lines was important but, because of the Bush administration policy, that research could only be undertaken with private money, Blau said. While work with new stem cell lines was going on in other parts of the world, and in states such as California willing to provide their own funds, the state of Washington refused to fund stem cell work.

Blau seemed upbeat despite the limitations. He believes that if a public initiative were launched in Washington state there would be a “pretty good chance of its passing if leaders of an initiative make it a mission from the patient advocacy perspective”.

Until that happens, in order to retain top scientists at UW and to continue research on newer stem cell lines, the university does have a programme in place to raise $50 million from private donors for human embryonic stem cell research.

Although immediate changes may not be on the horizon – regardless of the outcome of the 2008 presidential election – overall, Blau feels “very hopeful, very optimistic”. Human embryonic stem cell research is promising and scientists will be exploring it for a very long time.