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October 15, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 18)

Stem Cell Research Perseveres in the Midst of Funding Crisis

Uncertainty Surrounding Federal Grants for hESC Research Advances iPSCs

  • Role of iPSCs

    The uncertainty in funding will likely encourage researchers to accelerate the switch to iPSC technology. iPSCs have several advantages over hESCs. Most importantly, iPSCs provide a window on individual biology since both the phenotype and the genotype of the donor are known. This enables research on a variety of populations or patient subgroups that is essentially impossible to do with hESCs.

    Secondly, supply of individual donors for reprogramming is theoretically unlimited since any individual could donate somatic cells that could be reprogrammed into iPSCs.

    Finally, iPSCs do not engender political controversy. Like hESCs, iPSC lines are fully pluripotent; however, they are derived by reprogramming somatic cells. Therefore, federal funds should continue to be available for iPSC-based research even after the ruling.

    Although science is migrating toward iPSCs and iPSC-derived differentiated cells as research models, hESCs still have a critical role to play and their long-term absence will negatively impact both basic and applied research.

    hESCs are useful even in work with iPSCs, because they serve as a pluripotency benchmark to which all alternative stem cell models are measured. If the ban continues for a long period of time, progress in developing new research tools—even those based on iPSC technology—will slow, and the field could be weakened by this decision.

    What can be done to dampen the negative impact of this legal wrangling  on stem cell research, at least in the near term? The court decision will likely reinforce the migration of researchers and providers of stem cell-based research tools to iPSC-based technology.

    One cannot assume that the recent court decision will ultimately be overturned. Therefore, cell-based research tool manufacturers will have to accelerate the development of new iPSC lines and deliver more iPSC-derived cell models into the hands of both pharmaceutical and academic researchers so that they can continue to proceed with their work.

    Industry and academic scientists must work together to help expedite the transition of their research to new iPSC platforms. I believe that iPSC technology will enable them to continue their cutting-edge technology, while avoiding getting enmeshed in the politics of federal funding of stem cell research.

    The court case is a very unfortunate one that will have a negative impact on scientists’ ability to further understand pluripotency and stem cell biology, particularly if the decision is upheld under appeal and Congress does not rescind or modify existing law.

    iPSC-based cellular models are a viable alternative because they offer significant scientific utility compared to hESC-derived models. They also have the added advantage of avoiding the political uncertainty surrounding hESCs.

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