American researchers have been harvesting human embryonic stem cells since the mid 1990’s, but they have always faced opposition from politicians and independent groups throughout the country. In 1996, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment passed, making it illegal to use federal funds on research that damages or destroys a human embryo, which eliminated a large amount of federal funding from NIH projects working with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are generally divided into two categories: adult stem cells, and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are usually “multipotent,” which means that these cells can differentiate into a certain number of cell types, depending on the origin of the stem cell. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells are “pluripotent,” which means these cells can be directed into developing into any of the over 200 human cell types.
Despite this therapeutic potential, to begin a new cell line of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells, the embryo must be destroyed, and this has created a persistent resistance to furthering American stem cell research. However, this past week a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. ruled that the 1996 law preventing embryo destruction should not limit federal funding for already established cell lines. The Obama administration has identified 91 established embryonic stem cell lines that researchers can now use federal dollars to work on, and intend to add more as they become available from private sources. NIH Director Francis Collins called the ruling momentous, “not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research.” Stem cells have the potential to benefit a wide range of patients, from those suffering from diabetes to leukemia, and it is truly an exciting time for researchers throughout Massachusetts and the country. For more about this recent court decision, check out the full article from Boston.com, and to brush up on your own knowledge of this rapidly advancing field, try PopularScience’s Guide to Stem Cells.
Written by: Walter Palmer