Implications of President Obama’s Stem Cell Directive on Future Research

Although the ink has barely dried on President Obama’s March 9th Executive Order reversing the ban on federal funds to support stem cell research, many are wondering what the directive may mean for future research. Here is a summary:

  • The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), may now “support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research.” Within 120 days from March 9th, the Secretary, through the Director of NIH, must review existing NIH guidance and other widely recognized guidelines on human stem cell research, including provisions establishing appropriate safeguards, and issue new NIH guidance on stem cell research.
  • If approved by the NIH, federal funds may then be used to conduct research on human embryonic stem cell lines that were created, using private money, after the 2001 ban. Many feel that these lines, as opposed to the 21 lines that were grandfathered in before the 2001 ban, are healthier and easier to use. Furthermore, the 21 lines have been criticized by researchers as not being ethnically or genetically “diverse” enough to allow for effective research. The lines which would now be available could contain specific genetic mutations for diseases like Parkinson’s which will greatly aid scientists in the research to find cures.
  • Stem cell scientists who once had to set up “duplicate labs” (ones that used private money and ones that used public money) in order to maintain compliance with the ban against using federal funds, will be able to conduct all stem cell research at one facility thus saving time and money.
  • Previously, because of the NIH restrictions, privately-funded scientists were not able to team up with publicly-funded scientists to find stem cell treatments. Scientists will now have better opportunities to collaborate and share research which could lead to faster results.
  • Although it is not yet clear whether or how much additional money the NIH will receive for stem cell research officials say it is almost certain to be more than the $42 million the agency now spends each year. Also, the NIH will get $10.4 billion in additional funding as a part of the stimulus package and some of that will likely be spent on stem cell research according to Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH acting Deputy Director.
  • Private investors and pharmaceutical companies may begin to invest more money in stem cell research. Previously, such investments were deemed by some as risky given the political climate; however, the Executive Order clears the way for greater funding. Researchers at University of California at Davis have already planned to acquire four new stem cell lines as soon as the NIH finalizes its updated guidelines. They plan to use the stem cells to seek treatments for Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and liver damage.

Researchers and scientists across the country are excited by the change and are hopeful that it means cures will come faster. “It's wonderful. We are elated,” said Jan Nolta, who directs the stem cell research program at the University of California at Davis. “Now that we can use the federal funds, it will just go so much more quickly.”