It is a little more than one year since President Barack Obama’s executive order that changed federal policy on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are special because they can give rise to all of the cell types in the body and can self-renew indefinitely, a characteristic called pluripotency.
Since the president’s order, the National Institutes of Health have been painstakingly reviewing each line of cells derived from embryos submitted to the NIH for review to ensure that they meet certain rigorous ethical standards. These requirements include ensuring that the donors gave their fully informed consent to donation of the embryos for research, as one of several options available for embryos left over from in vitro fertilization treatment.
It remains illegal to use NIH funds to create human embryos for research purposes or for research in which human embryos are destroyed. Only research on the stem cell lines that have been placed on NIH’s new Stem Cell Registry may be supported using federal dollars.
As a result of the new NIH review process, 44 human embryonic stem cell lines are now eligible for federally funded research, as compared to 21 under the previous administration’s policy. Scientists who were working on federal grants approved before the Obama rules were in place may continue to use the Bush-approved lines until their current funding ends. The popular H1 line has already been approved for use and several others of the original 21 lines have been or will be submitted and hopefully will be approved soon, including the widely used H9 line.
Dozens more soon to be considered will add to the genetic diversity and utility of cells available to the scientific community. Importantly, once a line is on the registry, it is eligible for use by the entire NIH-funded scientific community.
When the president announced his new policy last year, critics were quick to pounce. Surely, they argued, the floodgates will now be opened to unbridled research with human embryonic stem cells. Worse, in ordering the NIH to develop ethics guidelines it was said that the president was letting the fox guard the hen house. But it is now clear that the Obama administration has instituted a far more rigorous ethics review than was in place before.
Ironically, while those critics are now silent it is some scientists who are frustrated at the pace of approval. Their understandable impatience needs to be viewed in light of a procedure that removes lingering questions about the origins of the cell lines with which they are working, questions that could undermine public confidence in the science itself.
President Obama and former President George W. Bush share the goal of ensuring that science is guided by ethics. But like science, ethics often requires experience. Our collective experience of the stem cell controversy has been instructive in yielding an approval process that will allow the science to move forward in way that deserves the nation’s trust.
Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Editor-in-Chief of Science Progress , a project of the Center for American Progress.