March 16, 2010
Remember all the whining and complaining that those old 21 approved "Bush lines" of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) were tired, contaminated, aging, and useless (despite facts to the contrary), and the cry for more and newer lines? And the celebration when President Obama's new Executive Order and NIH guidelines opened the door to use of many more hESC lines? No more having to deal with those old hESC lines, bring on as many new lines as you can make from destroyed embryos, a cornucopia of hESC lines available from which to choose. NIH approved the first new lines in December 2009, and 44 lines are now available for taxpayer-funded research (a new line, UCSF4 derived in April 2009, was approved on 12 March 2010), and over 100 more lines have been submitted to qualify for funding. Along with an increase in funds for human embryonic stem cell research, all seemed well for wide-open ESC science.
OOPS! Turns out those tired old useless hESC lines were... extremely valuable! They were, and are, the gold standard for human embryonic stem cells. They're what almost every hESC scientist has studied. They're thoroughly characterized and familiar cells.
Now, a number of scientists are realizing just how valuable are those well-characterized hESC lines. Despite the increased funding and many more lines from which to choose, many hESC scientists want... those tired old "Bush" lines. They are complaining that so far the new policy is more of a burden than a boon to their work. Some of the scientists say they're stunned by the irony. Apparently ideology and desire trumped science.
According to Charles Murray at the University of Washington-Seattle
"The situation at the moment is worse than it was under the Bush administration. Because of this, we are going to waste a lot of time."
Timothy Kamp at the University of Wisconsin says of the old hESC lines
"They are the main workhorses for many of our projects."
Julie Baker of Stanford says
"It's a huge setback because we've spent about six years studying the biology of that particular line. So they've just wasted millions of dollars and lots of resources, which just seems outrageous to me."
This really shouldn't come as a surprise. There were already rumblings early in the process about whether the old lines would be funded, with one researcher saying that the new Obama hESC policy had a tremendously detrimental effect on our research.
But there were also earlier warnings as well about the science. In April 2006, an article noted almost in passing that 85% of the world used the "Bush" approved lines, whether or not they got NIH funding. The preference was clearly for the best-characterized and most useful lines. Another paper published in October 2006 also found that most hESC researchers around the world used those lines, with a clear preference for three (H9, H1, H7) of the oldest lines originally derived by Thomson in 1998. (Note that (originally 78 lines were identified as "approved", an effort to ensure that all possible cells were eligible for funding.) In August 2009 another paper repeated the point, showing the predominance of hESC research used just two of the original lines (H1, H9).
Recently, the first (H1) of the tired old lines was approved. But many scientists are still waiting for their favorite, most scientifically useful, line to be approved for federal taxpayer funded research. It remains to be seen whether NIH will propose another change in its so-called ethical guidelines, this time to focus on science rather than ideology. So far the focus has not been on the patients first and the adult stem cell research already helping thousands. Ideology may trump science again.