Some MIT Stem Cell Scientists Helped by End of Federal Ban

1981 stemcells
Tenzin Lungjangwa pipets growth media in the Whitehead Human Stem Cell Facility, which was established entirely with private funding to circumvent President Bush’s ban on federal funding for the use of all but a small fraction of human stem cell lines.
Noah Spies—The Tech

President Obama’s change to federal stem cell policy, providing researchers with access to additional lines of stem cells under federal money, eliminates barriers faced to research by some MIT scientists.

“This will definitely put away all administrative problems,” said Professor Rudolf Jaenisch (pronounced YAIN-ish), who heads a lab which conducts stem cell research at the Whitehead Institute. “We had two different accounting systems. This all goes away now.”

Previous to President Obama’s executive order on March 9, 2009, MIT scientists were only permitted to use federal funding to work with a very limited number of stem cell lines which President Bush designated in 2001. MIT scientists will now be able to utilize federal funding to research stem cells from a much wider variety of stem cell lines, which should theoretically give researchers a better understanding of stem cells and how to apply them.

“A lot of the approved cell lines have issues,” said Professor Laurie A. Boyer, who runs a laboratory focused on stem cells, referring to the lines President Bush had designated. So much has been learned from stem cell lines outside of President Bush’s limitations that it would be very beneficial for scientists to study them, Boyer said.

Because these stem cell lines will now be available for use in federally funded labs, laboratories across the country will no longer have to keep federally and privately funded research separate.

Researchers had to mark equipment purchased with federal funding so as to not accidentally use them with privately-developed lines. Some even went to such lengths as managing separate laboratories for the two sources of funding, according to Professor Chris A. Kaiser, the head of the Biology department.

Boyer explained how computers purchased with federal money were tagged and could not be used for analyzing unapproved stem cell lines.

Inefficient accounting hassles related to keeping non-approved stem cell lines under private funds will also no longer exist, making it easier for researchers to enter this field.

“Once NIH makes guidelines on which lines to use, there will be more and better cells to use,” said Professor Richard Hynes, who does research at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and was a member of the national committee that developed the current stem cell guidelines.

Hynes expects for the new NIH stem cell policy to include current guidelines where applicable, and to dramatically expand upon the current set of allowed stem cell lines. This new policy must be formulated within 120 days of Obama’s March 9 executive order.

While some lines may not be approved, scientists are expected to find the new selection to have many coveted cell lines that were heretofore only accessible under private funding.

Because of existing federal legislation, specifically the Dickey-Wicker amendment, Hynes strongly doubts that the NIH will approve federal funding for the creation of new stem cell lines. Such an approval would require Congress to overturn the amendment, something which was outside the power of President Obama’s executive order.

According to Kaiser, reduced government limitations on stem cell research will allow for scientists such as Jaenich and Boyer to run their labs more efficiently, no longer placing them at a competitive disadvantage to labs which are privately funded.

“It feels as if a cloud is being lifted,” Kaiser said. “If there would be a reason for MIT to dance in the streets, this would be it.”