The Daily Californian Online

Stem-Cell Order to Boost UC Research

By Anna Widdowson
Contributing Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009
Category: News > University > Higher Education

A researcher helps to maintain stem cells in a tissue culture dish while working at a laboratory in the Valley Life Sciences Building.

An executive order to allow federal funding for increased human embryonic stem-cell research may expand opportunities for UC Berkeley professors conducting studies in the field.

The order, signed Monday by President Barack Obama, overturns a 2001 Bush administration policy that restricted research using federal funding to 60 registered embryonic stem-cell lines.

Now, researchers will be able to use funding from the National Institutes of Health for research on any pre-existing stem-cell lines.

While the order does not directly provide more funding to institutions conducting research, the stimulus package passed earlier this month gave an additional $10 billion to the institute, $25 million of which could go directly to embryonic stem-cell research, said Randy Schekman, director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center.

Schekman said the order represents a new federal attitude toward science.

"We've suffered for seven years under an influence that is dictated by religion rather than science," he said. "Obama's decision reverses what many of us in the scientific field thought was a wrong decision."

Researchers value embryonic stem cells for their potential to create any organ or tissue in the human body, an important function for the study of diseases and medicine.

Schekman said congressional action is still required to use federal funding to derive new stem-cell lines, but he expects Congress to vote on the matter soon.

There are currently 11 professors on the UC Berkeley campus who conduct research on human embryonic stem cells, according to Lily Mirels, an administrator at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center, which began in 2004.

"The order removes a lot of the barriers currently in place against stem-cell research," she said. "It will make it possible for researchers to use a wider range of stem-cell lines and in more labs ... before, there were plenty of researchers on campus who opted out because it was too much of a hassle."

Under the Bush administration's policy, researchers could not use federally funded equipment or labs for stem-cell research.

Moreover, to conduct any investigation outside the registered stem-cell lines-which Schekman said deteriorated with time and experimentation-researchers had to seek private funds.

In California, this includes funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, established in 2004 with the passage of Proposition 71, which sought to promote stem cell based cures for diseases.

UC Berkeley receives close to $35 million a year from the institute.

Mirels and Schekman expect controversy over the expansion of stem-cell research on campus, although the order maintained policies regarding the ethical derivation of cells.

"There's a lot of debate about whether or not you are destroying human life," Mirels said. "But there is consensus that the people donating the embryos should understand what is going to be done with them."

UC spokesperson Chris Harrington said the university is pleased with the order to lift the ban on federal funding.

"Researchers across the university system are already pursuing ground-breaking research that will enhance the lives of Californians," he said. "The president's action, as well as the important work and support of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, will allow our researchers to continue to move forward in pursuing this tremendous and potentially life-changing research."

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