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Fear of having to switch stem-cell workhorses midstream

An NPR report today points out an oddly ironic result of the embryonic-stem-cell policy shift announced by the Obama Administration last year.

On August 9, 2001, then-President George W. Bush announced the first-ever National Institutes of Health funding of human embryonic-stem-cell research, but with some strong strings attached: Only stem-cell lines that had already been established by that date could qualify for federal support (thus ensuring that no government incentives could be claimed to have encouraged the destruction of human embryos); and, to ensure that this was the case, any research on these acceptable lines had to be meticulously sequestered from work with other, newer ones. Many a scientist voiced complaints about these constraints. But nonetheless, many an advance has been made by investigators working with the 18 or so workhorse stem-cell lines freely funded by the U.S. government.

On March 9, 2009, the Obama Administration announced a broadening of federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell lines, a move widely cheered by the stem-cell community. But with this move came a requirement that new paperwork had to be filed for any cell line to be kept on the NIH registry of acceptable lines.

This raises some continuity problems, because if certain workhorse lines aren't successfully re-registered, it could mean many labs would have to repeat a ton of experiments with new lines used to replace them.

Work by Stanford's Christopher Scott, PhD, and colleagues, examining some 534 scientific publications, showed that one cell line called H9 appears in 83 percent of those publications - making it, by far, the most popular line in the literature. Yet the necessary re-registration paperwork for this line, owned by an offshoot of the University of Wisconsin, has not yet been filed, apparently due to some complications in establishing its provenance - as necessary under the new rules.

This leaves H9 in the position of being off-limits for federal funding, at least for the moment. The NPR report quotes Stanford geneticist Julie Baker, PhD, as worrying that an NIH grant proposal she has applied for could be jeopardized: "It looks like the H9 line, which is the line that we use for 99 percent of our work, is no longer on the NIH registry," she says. More from the story:

"It's a huge setback because we've spent about six years studying the biology of that particular line," Baker says, explaining that the cell lines all have unique properties and are not interchangeable. Her lab can't switch to a new one overnight. It would take months to get new cells growing, and her team would have to redo experiments.

Previously: Third time's the charm for stem cell legislation?

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