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Stem cell exodus?

Embryonic stem cell funding flows again – for now. But stop-and-go funding and continued legal wrangling could push researchers of cells from human embryos to pursue other fields.

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The immediate cost to science is the interruption of momentum. In August, Judge Royce Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia unexpectedly granted a preliminary injunction on hESC funding on the grounds that it violated a 1996 budget rider called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The amendment prohibits the use of federal funds to destroy embryos. Scientists had gotten around that requirement by using private funds to pay to extract stem cells from the embryo, then using funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for all subsequent research. Judge Lamberth's injunction disallowed that practice.

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"Federal grants are the lifeblood of our program," says George Daley, an hESC researcher with a joint appointment at Harvard and Children's Hospital Boston who, by Sept. 1, had to freeze some of the stem-cell cultures he had been working on and transfer others to a privately funded lab. "We can limp along using private funds, but – especially in this economy – those are hard to find."

Federal funding remains in jeopardy. While Tuesday's ruling keeps the funding flowing for now, the trial on the merits of the original case still lies ahead. A funding refreeze seems likely, as Lamberth granted the August injunction because, he wrote, there was a "strong likelihood" that he would eventually rule that the NIH was violating the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by funding hESC research.

The advantage of hESCs is that they can become any other type of cell. Scientists discovered that some adult cells can be "reprogrammed" to mimic that ability. These cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), present new possibilities.

"We all hope that someday [iPSCs] will be viable replacements for embryonic stem cells," says research professor Daniel Anderson, walking between his laboratories, which are scattered across several floors in interconnected buildings at MIT. "But it's not today."

For example: The viruses used to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells make them unsafe, so far, for many applications. To improve iPSCs, scientists are studying them in parallel with hESCs, learning as much as they can about both.

"The gold standard is still hESC," says Carol Ware, who directs the Tom and Sue Ellison Stem Cell Core at the University of Washington. If hESC research disappears, "you've lost your control group," the base line against which to compare the iPSC work.

Some stem-cell researchers move abroad

Some scientists warn that US constraints on hESC research could push scientists to move their research overseas. "This research will go on whether or not we play the game," says Randall Moon, who directs the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington. "The hope is that the US will come to its senses in time to take the lead rather than pick up the pieces."

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