In the near future, President Barack Obama is widely expected to lift the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, which has been in place since 2001 and has limited federal funding to only 21 existing lines. Lifting the ban is an important first step - but it is mostly symbolic. Unless it leads to a significant increase in funding for rebuilding the infrastructure this field needs to mature, it is likely to have little tangible effect. This would be very unfortunate, because the field of regenerative medicine - which utilizes stem cells, among other tools, to understand disease processes and to repair damaged organs - is ripe for development.
Little federal research has been conducted on human embryonic stem cells over the past eight years. In 2007, for example, the federal government allocated a mere $41 million to this research, compared with approximately $400 million invested by the states last year. The federal funding ban made it extremely difficult to attract young or new researchers to stem cell research, while prompting many established investigators to look elsewhere to conduct their work. The lack of progress in embryonic stem cell research has held back venture capital investment in this field as well.
Human embryonic stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell in the body, whereas adult stem cells can change into only a limited number of cell types. Thus, the lack of progress in embryonic stem cell research has created a major bottleneck in developing understanding of and potential treatments for many diseases not currently treatable by adult stem cell therapies.
The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first U.S. human clinical trial using embryonic stem cells as a therapy for spinal cord injuries. Research has already demonstrated that embryonic stem cells can regenerate nerves and restore limited movement in the limbs of paralyzed rats. Animal studies also suggest that stem cells have the potential to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of a broad range of other human disorders and diseases, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. One of the most exciting applications of stem cells may be for growing new tissues and organs for transplantation.
Maryland is positioned to become a world leader in stem cell research and regenerative medicine. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda conducts stem cell research throughout many of its 27 institutes. In addition, the Johns Hopkins University has a major stem cell research program, and we have recently launched the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine here at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Gov. Martin O'Malley made an early commitment to providing state funding for stem cell research and has increased funding this year despite the dismal fiscal climate. As a result - and because of our state's growing nucleus of expertise in stem cells - the University of Maryland and Hopkins will co-host the World Stem Cell Summit in Baltimore this fall.
However, much bigger investments in people, technology and resources are required. This field needs a coordinated effort among federal, state and private funders to map out priorities and to ensure that all high-priority projects are funded. The federal government's more favorable attitude toward embryonic stem cell research must not prompt states and private funders to cut back their support, keeping the field underfunded and fragmented.
A significant new investment in stem cell research could allow research institutions such as ours to have a major impact not only on the health of our nation but also on the health of our national economy. Additional investments in stem cells would allow us to create more high-paying, sustainable jobs in our research laboratories as well as economic opportunities for businesses that will help translate our lab discoveries into therapies for patients. The new administration's encouraging words on embryonic stem cell research are a good sign that progress toward that goal may now resume.
Dr. Curt I. Civin is associate dean for research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of UM's Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. His e-mail is ccivin@
som.umaryland.edu. Dr. E. Albert Reece is dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at UM and a member of the National Academies Stem Cell Guidelines Committee. His e-mail is email@example.com.