This article was contributed by Allison Lau

For months, much has been made in the media of Obama’s lifting of the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.  On March 9, 2009, with Executive Order 13505 [pdf], “Removing Barriers to Responsible Research Involving Human Stem Cells,” President Obama effectively paved the way for increased federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Since Bush’s 2001 memorandum, NIH funding could not be used on newly created human embryonic stem cell lines; this left 60 previously derived lines eligible for funding.

On July 7, NIH’s new guidelines, became effective.  The regulations call for the establishment of a stem cell registry of human embryonic stem cell lines eligible for NIH funding, and creation of a working group of scientists, ethicists, and members of the public, which will review new stem cell lines and will also review the eligibility of pre-existing human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines rather than “grandfathering” them in.  The guidelines establish new rules for informed consent and stipulate that donors must not receive payment for their donation.

However, these guidelines still leave open some unanswered questions, such as if the 21 embryonic stem cell lines that were approved for use under Bush will be qualified for federal funding, as they may not meet the new higher standards for informed consent.  Also, it is unclear how long it will take for the working group to approve the hESC lines, and whether this will occur in time to use federal stimulus package funding for these projects.

Importantly, research that is still not eligible for NIH funding includes “research using hESCs derived from other sources, including somatic cell nuclear transfer, parthenogenesis, and/or IVF embryos created for research purposes.”  The administration wants to shy away from any research that could be considered “therapeutic cloning,” presumably to avoid controversy.  Funds may also not be used for derivation of ESCs.

For more on this issue, check out the SITN Flash article from March, “Stemming the Science Drain: Outlook on U.S. Stem Cell Research Under the Obama Administration.”