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NIH Director Supports Ending Restrictions on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

On Mar. 19, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, MD, broke with governmental protocol by publicly stating his support for ending the restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is limited to lines created on or before August 9, 2001, and last year President Bush vetoed a bill (HR 810) that would have allowed funding for new lines derived from embryos that would have been discarded by fertility clinics.

While speaking to the Senate health appropriations subcommittee, which supervises the nearly $29 billion NIH budget, Dr. Zerhouni said that the 20 or so embryonic stem cell lines created prior to 2001 are now unsuitable for research, and that “…it is clear today that American science will be better-served, and the nation will be better-served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines.”

In January, the House passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, a bill similar to HR 810, and it will be up for consideration by the Senate after its spring recess. President Bush is expected to veto the forthcoming bill again, but scientists who support embryonic stem cell research told Neurology Today that they are nevertheless hopeful that Dr. Zerhouni's statements could turn the tide of lawmakers' opinions in their favor on Capitol Hill.

They were not as optimistic that the NIH director's statement would make a difference with the Bush Administration. Said Evan Y. Snyder, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cell and Regeneration Program at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, CA: “We simply need to wait for a new administration in the White House or a great majority in Congress to override any vetoes.”


Dr. Elias Zerhouni: “…it is clear today that American science will be better-served, and the nation will be better-served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines.”

If there was any silver lining, one former NIH stem cell scientist said, it is that Dr. Zerhouni's statement could signal a less conservative NIH interpretation of current federal guidelines on stem cell research.

Mahendra Rao, MD, PhD, resigned his post as chief of the section for stem cell biology at the National Institute on Aging last April because he said the current policies were too restrictive. Dr. Rao, now vice president of research, stem cells, and regenerative medicine at Invitrogen, a Carlsbad, CA-based biotechnology company, said: “The biggest issues that have never been clear involve sharing data on approved and non-approved lines and working with DNA and dead cells, as there is really no way to trace where such samples came from to perform an analysis. If the US government played a role in establishing standards and provided clearer guidance on interactions between legal lines (that are not federally funded) and federally funded lines, it would make many things much easier.”

Dr. Rao said Dr. Zerhouni, who became the NIH director in May 2002, is trying to do everything possible under current law to make a difference during his tenure, which has come during a time when support for biomedical research at the NIH is at a low. He added: “It is important to remember that under his guidance, the NIH did the best it could to train folks and to provide critical infrastructure support.”