Scientists look to Obama to revive stem cell funding

Staff Reporter

Washington University scientists are expecting increases in funding for human embryonic stem cell research under President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration, a change that could foster more prolific research in curing human diseases.

While little is known about how or when stem cell policy will change, researchers at the University are ready and waiting for federal support that some say could be immediately helpful for curing diseases.

“If government policy changed, it’s extremely likely that new projects would be started at Wash. U.,” stem cell biologist and Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology David Gottlieb said.

Obama has pledged to reverse President Bush’s restrictive policies on stem cell research, although few details have been publicly discussed.

“The President-elect is still fully committed to stem cell research. Whether it’s by executive order or legislation is still being decided, but the important thing is that he will fight to get it done,” Federico de Jesús, a transition press official, said.

Under the Bush administration, use of human embryonic stem (ES) cells is not illegal but receives limited federal funding. To work around these limitations, University scientists use alternative sources of stem cells, such as mouse embryonic stem cells, but their utility is limited when it comes to translating basic research into therapy.

Easier access to human ES cells would be advantageous because understanding human functions and diseases ultimately requires studying human cells, according to Gottlieb.

“To the medical scientists, it means that you’ll be able to have for the first time an array of human models of human disease, whereas prior to this most of the research had to be done in very inappropriate human cells, or rat or mouse cells,” Gottlieb said. “Another thing is that in biology, a lot of the mechanisms are conserved in evolution, like from mice to humans, but there’s a point where that’s no longer accurate.”

In other words, while human cells and mouse cells share enough in common that mouse cells are useful for gaining a basic understanding of cellular processes, the finer details may differ. And when it comes to designing treatments for human patients, fine details can make a crucial difference.

“If you really want to nail how the human heart works, you need to use human cells,” Gottlieb said.

Fifth-year biomedical engineering graduate student Cara Rieger said her work using mouse embryonic stem cells is an example of research in which a transition to human ES cells could be rewarding.

“Our lab specializes in taking ES cells and directing them down a neural differentiation pathway—making neurons in a dish,” she said. “One long-term goal is to engineer ES-derived neural cells so they can be used in transplantation, cellular replacement therapy for neural injury or neurodegenerative disease.”

“I think the same techniques we are developing using the mouse system will become more widely used in human ES cells,” Rieger said.

Because of the technical complexity of switching to a different model system, not every stem-cell lab would immediately start using human ES cells if government funding swelled. Gottlieb said that many people could benefit from the work of a few, however.

“Even if we decided to use mouse [stem cells] only [in my lab], we would be impacted because science grows together as a community,” he said. “The contribution of each lab is affected by all the other labs. It would have an immense impact.”

Washington University research as a whole could be pushed to greater prominence if more labs were able to use human ES cells, he said, because the University lags behind similar institutions in the amount of human stem cell research currently being conducted.

Undergraduate Julia Keighley, a junior who works alongside mouse stem cell researchers in the lab of Associate Professor of Developmental Biology Kristin Kroll, said her lab is waiting to see how government policy changes.

“I know it’s something they worry about. One of the guys I talk to a lot has been doing some work with a dismantled version of the HIV virus,” Keighley said. “Everything they’re doing needs to be done. So whatever the administration can do to help is welcome.”

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