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Obama Administration Plans to Expand Research Funding for Older Stem Cell Lines

An Obama administration plan released Monday would expand federal funding of stem cell research to older lines of stem cells previously ineligible for such financing. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Next tonight, new rules for stem cell research. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    President Obama came into office vowing to lift his predecessor's restrictions on stem cell research and what the government was willing to fund. In March, the president issued an executive order directing the National Institutes of Health to set guidelines.

    Now the agency has spelled out those rules. They allow more embryonic stem cell lines, as they're known, to become eligible for federal funding. But to qualify, those lines must be derived from human embryos that were approved for research use by donors and originally created for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, but were not used for that purpose.

    To help walk us through what this all means, we're joined by Susan Dentzer, editor of the journal Health Affairs and a health analyst for the NewsHour.

    Welcome back.

    SUSAN DENTZER, Health Affairs, editor: Nice to be back, Jeff.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, first, to try to explain what's going on here, the biggest change from President Bush to President Obama in general terms?

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    In general terms, it is, as you said, the number of lines that will now be eligible for scientists to work on and work on it with federal dollars, taxpayer dollars. That's on one level.

    On another level, though, this is another symbolic push forward for the research. And that's, I think, how it was greeted broadly by the scientific community yesterday and today.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, part of the issue in coming up with these guidelines was determining how exactly a particular line is derived. Explain what that means.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    Exactly right. Well, in the executive order that the president issued in March, he said that we wanted to — NIH was going to be allowed to fund research on lines that were responsibly created and would basically result in scientific advancement. So these guidelines are all about deciding what's responsibly created.

    As the guidelines went on to say today, there's some degree of societal consensus, not complete, but some degree of consensus around the notion that, if you were involved in an assisted reproductive technology, like IVF, and that embryo was created for the purposes of reproduction, and if for various reasons it wasn't used — you got lucky on the first one, you didn't need a second one, you decided not to proceed, whatever — those embryos stack up in fertility clinics, and there are hundreds of thousands of them.

    There's general consensus, the guidelines say, around taking those discarded embryos, in effect, using them to derive the embryonic stem cells and growing lines from those, whereas the NIH has gone on to say there's not consensus around embryonic stem cell lines created by other means, for example, what's known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, cloning, in effect.

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