NIH unveils final stem-cell research funding rules

USA Today (7/7, Vergano) reports that the NIH “unveiled final rules Monday designed to unlock the restrictions on federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells.” The rules are meant to “finance research on stem cells donated by fertility clinic patients ‘who gave voluntary written consent for the human embryos to be used for research purposes.’ Donors must not receive payment for the embryos or expect medical or financial benefits later, the rules state.” Meanwhile, older stem cell lines, “including those eligible for grants during the Bush administration, will be reviewed for possible funding by a new panel of scientists and ethicists.”

According to the Washington Post (7/7, Vedantam), acting NIH Director Raynard Kington “said all embryonic stem cell lines that qualified for federal funding would have to meet a series of ethical requirements” and he “indicated that once the NIH committee established that the procedure for any one stem cell line matched the new ethics requirements, all the lines that used similar procedures could see expedited approval. He said the NIH would set up a website that would list all the approved stem cell lines.”

However, the New York Times (7/7, Harris) notes NIH will “insist that any scientists creating stem cell lines after Tuesday follow the new rules to the letter for their work to be eligible,” Kington added. “With more than $10 billion in stimulus money, health institute officials have been eager to expand stem cell research. Just 21 stem cell lines have been eligible for federal financing under the old rules. But researchers using private money have created more than 700 stem cell lines.”

The AP (7/7, Neergaard) reports that, regarding the rules governing the stem cell lines already in existence, Kington said, “We think this is a reasonable compromise to achieve the president’s goal of both advancing science while maintaining rigorous ethical standards. … We believe that judgment is necessary.” While Kington “wouldn’t speculate on how many old stem cells ultimately would qualify…scientists welcomed the change.”

AFP (7/7) adds that “scientists say such research is key to designing treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.” Many “have been awaiting the NIH guidelines to design research projects that would be eligible for federal funding.”

Still, the rules are not without controversy. The Hill (7/7, Young) explains that the “fault line in the political debate over stem cell research is mostly, though not entirely, the same one that separates supporters and opponents of abortion rights.” The NIH experienced “this emotional intensity firsthand,” as it “received more than 49,000 comments from the public after issuing a draft of its guidelines in April. About 30,000 of them — many of which were form letters — debated whether the NIH should be funding embryonic stem cell research at all, Kington said.”

NPR (7/6, Shapiro), Bloomberg News (7/7, Randall, Waters), and Reuters (7/7) also covered the story.

Lawmakers respond to new guidelines. The Denver Daily News (7/7, Wolpe) reports that, in response to the NIH announcement, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Rep. Michael Castle (D-DE) “applauded” the guidelines, saying, “Since 2001, we have been working to strengthen federal support for scientific research, including embryonic stem cell research, which potentially holds so much promise for the millions of Americans who are living with debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and spinal cord injury.”

Roll Call (7/7, Bendery) reports that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) “blasted the Obama administration” for the NIH stem cell rules, saying, “These final regulations represent a troubling development for those who believe that taxpayer funds should not be used to destroy human life.” He added, “Healthcare reform should not be a vehicle to advance controversial pro-abortion policies. Rather, it should be an opportunity to work in a bipartisan way to give Americans better access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.”

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