Stem Cells To Get Federal Funding

Harvard stem cell researchers hailed President Obama’s reported intention to lift restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research today as a decision that will change the landscape of biomedical research.

The decision coincides with the recent passage of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, potentially making stem cell researchers nationwide eligible for some of the $10.4 billion earmarked for the National Institutes of Health, an unrivaled source of federal funding for biomedical research that gave Harvard researchers $351 million last fiscal year.

Until today, federal funding for embryonic research—which some criticize as unethical because it requires the destruction of embryos—had been constrained by a 2001 order from President Bush that limited funding to research using only the 21 cell lines existing at the time of his directive.

Critics of that restriction have long contended that embryonic stem cells—believed to be capable of morphing into any body tissue cells—merit federal support because they could lead to new treatments for degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s.

Once Obama signs the executive order, researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute will be able to not only tap into this previously unavailable funding stream, but also conduct embryonic research without current onerous restrictions on separating privately and publicly funded research.

“You have to go through a lot of hoops in order to find the space to be able to do the work,” said Gordon C. Weir, a professor of medicine who works at Harvard-affiliated Joslin Diabetes Center, where he said stem cell research must occur in a specific room renovated by non-federal dollars.

Under current law, stem cell researchers must be exceedingly careful to ensure that nothing funded by the NIH contributes in any way to embryonic stem cell research, forcing researchers to purchase duplicate sets of expensive equipment and laboratory supplies or create separate facilities, such as those at the Joslin Center.

“It’s been very inhibiting,” Weir said of the federal restrictions, adding that regulations had prevented him and his colleagues from starting a project that involved injecting embryonic stem cells into animals to study how well the cells function when transplanted.

Because the project could not receive federal support, he would have had to spend over $10,000 to purchase separate animal cages and other equipment—too high a price tag for the private donors who would have had to fund it. Weir said he and his colleagues decided to hold off on the project in the hope that Obama would soon lift federal restrictions. They now intend to seek federal support for the project, he said.

Kevin Casey, the University’s chief lobbyist, said that Harvard has long called for such a decision, both individually and in concert with the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a national bipartisan research advocacy group. And the timing of the announcement may allow Harvard researchers to apply for federal funding to support embryonic stem cell research, Casey said.

“With the stimulus bill legislation, it would have been a shame to miss that opportunity for embryonic stem cell research to benefit from that,” Casey said.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.