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NIH approves first 13 embryonic stem cell lines for federal research

The National Institutes of Health has approved the first 13 lines of embryonic stem cells for use by federal researchers, ushering in a new era of research that is both promising and controversial.

Updated 6:11 p.m.

BETHESDA, Maryland — The National Institutes of Health has approved the first 13 lines of embryonic stem cells for use by federal researchers, ushering in a new era of research that is both promising and controversial.

The Wednesday move by the NIH is the first fruit of an executive order by President Barack Obama that revoked a ban on using stem cells derived from embryonic sources in federally funded research.

“I am happy to say that we now have human embryonic stem cell lines eligible for use by our research community under our new stem cell policy,” said Dr. Francis Collins,  director of the NIH, in a press release.

“In accordance with the guidelines, these stem cell lines were derived from embryos that were donated under ethically sound, informed consent processes. More lines are under review now and we anticipate continuing to expand this list of responsibly derived lines eligible for NIH funding,” Collins said.

Embryonic stem cells are promising because they eventually could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s. Research using embryonic stem cells already is yielding information about the complex events that occur during human development, the NIH said.

They are controversial because fetuses must be destroyed to harvest stem cells, which have the ability to develop into many types of tissues, such as blood vessel and muscle. To some, that equals murder. In addition, stem cells that come from embryos have produced tumors rather than healthy tissue.

Children’s Hospital Boston developed 11 of the approved lines and Rockefeller University in New York City developed two of the lines, the NIH said. Another 96 lines have been submitted to the NIH for review.

Adult stem cells derived from sources like bone marrow or umbilical cord blood hold a similar promise but with less health risk and controversy.

The Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine in Cleveland has specialized in adult stem-cell research, said Debra Grega, executive director of the multi-institution center. Though the NIH approval of embryonic lines should broaden opportunities for all stem cell researchers, the approval probably won’t have much effect on the Cleveland center, Grega said.

Dr. Arnold Caplan in the biology department at Case Western Reserve University and his colleagues were the first in the world, 15 to 20 years ago, to isolate and characterize” adult stem cells, she said. “Ohio has been at the forefront of stem cell work for the last two decades.”

Because adult stem cells have been studied longer, researchers know better what they could do in the human body. The Cleveland center is also working with induced-pluripotent stem cells — taking a skin cell, say, and reverse-engineering it to a primordial stem cell.

The center also has focused on adult stem cells because of grants from the Ohio Third Frontier program. “The Third Frontier ties its financial support to good research that is coupled with commercialization,” Grega said. “To be able to commercialize stem cells, you have to understand how to control them.”

[Photo credit: Stem cell enhanced by electronic micrograph by Annie Cavanagh and Dave McCarthy, courtesy of Wellcome Science]