December 08, 2009
NIH Approves Lines of Human Embryonic Stem Cells
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Last Wednesday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the approval of the first 13 human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines for use in NIH-funded research under the new NIH Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research published on July 7, 2009.  The NIH is, of course, the great financial umbilical cord supplying U.S. tax-payer dollars to fund the vast majority of biomedical research in our country. I explored the details of those guidelines in a previous column.

Let me extrapolate the facts about what this announcement meant from the spin that it was given by advocates of embryo-destructive research.  Recall first of all that the revised NIH guidelines were greeted by the same advocates with howls of disappointment last July because they were so "restrictive."  Under the new NIH guidelines, for any stem cell line to be approved for funded research, it had to be demonstrated that the line was derived from an embryo created exclusively for fertility treatment purposes (not specifically for research purposes) and was made available for research by the parents under strict informed consent processes.

In fact, all previously approved lines of stem cells -- the so-called "Presidential" or "Bush" lines -- were ipso facto disqualified for funding until such time as it could be demonstrated that they, or any other stem cell line, had passed muster with the new guidelines. 

So, while approximately thirty NIH grants for hESC were approved for funding in 2009 (totaling more than $20 million), the grant monies have been on hold until last week when these thirteen lines of hESCs came on line for fundable research. Children's Hospital Boston developed eleven of the approved lines and Rockefeller University in New York City developed the other two in 2005 with private funding from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. None of the lines approved were from among the "Presidential lines," and some 96 additional lines are in a cue awaiting review.

Now, the upshot of this news is that there is practically no news here.

That's why proponents of embryo-destructive research were desperately trying to spin this announcement into something that it is not. Take for example, The Washington Post's Rob Stein who reported last Wednesday:

The Obama administration has begun approving new lines of human embryonic stem cells that are eligible for federally funded experiments, opening the way for millions of taxpayer dollars to be used to conduct research that was put off-limits by President George W. Bush.  Launching a dramatic expansion of government support for one of the most promising but most contentious fields of biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health on Wednesday authorized the first 13 lines of cells under the administration's policy and was poised to approve 20 more Friday.

Now, consider:

  • "Research that was put off-limits by President George W. Bush." But of course, George Bush was the first president in American history to allow federal funding for hESC research.

  • "Millions of taxpayer dollars." That remains to be seen. The re-working of NIH guidelines will hardly occasion in the short term the proverbial bursting of the funding dam which many hESC researchers had clamored for. The vast majority of stem cell labs do not operate under a perceived urgency for creating new lines of hESCs, nor are most labs set up to derive new lines of hESCs.

  • "Dramatic expansion of government support." Come again?  The research allowed under the Bush administration, supported by tens of millions of federal dollars each year, went ahead on dozens of existing lines of hESCs.  Those lines -- as any honest stem cell researcher would tell you -- were, in fact, sufficient to allow robust research in this arena.

As for the dramatically "new" research that would "now" be possible with these 13 lines of stem cells -- another element of spin we heard repeatedly last week -- Westchester Institute Senior Fellow and stem cell researcher Markus Grompe was skeptical.  "None of my colleagues are being specific about what 'new science' they think is now possible," he said. "It's more likely that they're simply planning to repeat with the new lines what's already been done with previously used lines of hESCs. So much of the 'new science' will simply be to compare new results to old ones, with minor variations on the same theme."

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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