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Q&A with Richard Hynes on stem cell funding

MIT Professor Richard Hynes discusses the impact of President Obama's recent announcement that the federal government will expand its funding of certain types of embryonic stem cell research. Hynes, the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, served on the National Academy of Science committees that established the current Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

Q. What will be the most immediate impact(s) of the new stem cell rules for scientists, including those at MIT?

A. The Obama announcement will allow many more researchers, including some at MIT, to conduct research on well-characterized human embryonic stem (hES) cell lines. The 20 or so lines on which the Bush administration allowed NIH funding are early lines prepared and maintained in ways that leave much to be desired, both scientifically and ethically, but they were until now the only ones on which most people could work. Since 2001, researchers with access to non-federal funding have developed many new lines using improved techniques and better and more ethical informed consent procedures. There are estimated to be hundreds of such lines. Once the NIH has reviewed which of those lines are deemed acceptable for distribution and for federal funding of research using them, many of them will become available to all scientists to study. MIT scientists are working on methods to develop hES cells for therapeutic purposes, and they will now have more and better lines to analyze.

There is a great deal of research needed to work out how to coax hES cells into different cell types and how to use them for research and therapy -- that necessary research has been impeded by the Bush administration policy and will now be much enhanced. What the Obama announcement does not do is allow federal funding for the development of any new hES cell lines. That is precluded by current congressional legislation and will require action by the House and Senate to change the law. Such a change seems rather unlikely in the near future. However, development of new lines can continue with non-federal funding and they can presumably be made available for NIH-funded research.

Q. How will your own research be affected?

A. My own research will not be affected -- I do not work on human ES cells. That is one of the reasons I was able to serve on the National Academy of Science committees that established the current Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Some of those guidelines (the ones concerning use of existing lines) will presumably be incorporated into the NIH regulations. However, the NAS guidelines will still be needed to guide research practices on aspects not eligible for federal funding such as making new lines from IVF embryos or by nuclear transfer.

Q. What potential long-term impacts do you see, in terms of better understanding and/or treatment of human disease?

A. The promise of human stem cells will only be realized after a lot of hard work by many scientists. The pace of research has been slowed by the Bush-era restrictions -- the new rules will allow more research to be done by more people on more and better hES cell lines. That will undoubtedly speed the development of our understanding and applications of stem cells. Stem cells offer promise both for deeper understanding of disease processes and for the testing of drugs that may ameliorate such diseases, as well as the prospects for actual therapeutic applications of stem cells and of cells and tissues derived from them.

Q. Have recent advances in reprogramming adult stem cells to an embryonic state made embryonic stem cell research less important? Or is it important to pursue both areas of research?

A. The recent advances on reprogramming of adult cells to a pluripotent state (capable of developing into many cell types) are very exciting and there is hope that they may eventually be an alternative source. However, we do not yet understand reprogramming and it is very inefficient. So we currently need to pursue investigation of multiple approaches -- both embryonic and adult stem cells as well as induced pluripotent stem cells. The chances are that each will have some applications and we cannot be sure yet which will prove the most useful in the long run.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 2009 (download PDF).

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