According to the New York Times, the University of Nebraska is considering restricting its stem cell experiments to cell lines approved by former President George W. Bush. For anyone who has forgotten the history, in 2001 Bush declared that federal money would only be allowed to be used for research deriving from 21 stem cell lines that were already in existence at the time of his decision. This led to all sorts of challenges for researchers — I remember hearing about one who had to go so far as to keep two refrigerators in his lab to make sure that funds were completely separate — and arguably set back our progress, at least in this specific area of research, by more than half a decade. I, like many people with diseases that stem cells might help treat, was not very happy with this decision. By which I mean I was furious.
Soon after Obama came into office, he lifted several restrictions on stem cells, including one that had forbidden researchers from using embryos from fertility clinics that were set to be discarded. Let me say that again: prior to this year, you were not allowed to use embryos that otherwise would have been thrown out, despite the fact that the research they would be used for has the potential to help millions of people. I understand the controversy around the idea of using stem cells from embryos. But to refuse to let would-be trash save lives? I find that ridiculous.
Anyway. My point is that tomorrow, Friday, the University of Nebraska’s board of regents is scheduled to vote on whether they want to set tougher limits on stem cell research than are required by either state or local laws. (They want to reintroduce Bush’s 21-line restriction, and forbid research on stem cells derived from to-be-discarded embryos from fertility clinics.) If it succeeds, says the university, it would be the first time in a state university that this would happen.
Understandably controversial, the university’s impending decision has fired up people on both sides of the debate — with researchers horrified, and opponents of embryonic stem cell research hoping this might be a way to skirt around state and national laws to create more pockets of resistance. We’ll have to wait to see how they vote, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the Times that explains what I find the most worrisome about this story:
Advocates of the research, including the university’s president, worry that the restrictions would make it nearly impossible to attract researchers of regenerative medicine or grant money in the field, and some fear it could send a deeply disturbing signal about the broader academic climate here.
The university is one of scores across the country that engage in human embryonic stem cell research, which attracted about $88 million in federal financing in 2008. Some $3.2 million in federal money is supporting research projects that include such stem cell work at the University of Nebraska. “It would taint this university for a long time,” said Dr. Harold M. Maurer, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which conducts stem cell research.
We’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out what the university decides. Fingers crossed.