THE BLOG

Only the Freshest Stem Cells Will Do

08/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Despite new guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health, few researchers are keen on creating new stem cell lines due both to the expense and the continuing ban on spending federal dollars to do so. It can cost millions simply to derive the lines. Factor in the cost of tending to and distributing them, and we're talking real money.

In 2001, in an anti-science era, President Bush limited federal funding to studies involving fewer than the two dozen lines already in existence. Early in his administration, President Obama lifted most of the limitations, provided that the couple hundred lines already in labs meet certain ethical standards. Among them are that they be leftover, garbage-bound embryos from somebody's IVF treatment and that those somebodies give full consent before federal dollars are put toward altering their path of destruction. Neither Congress nor President Obama have made any moves to lift the ban on using federal funds to create new lines and the revamped NIH regulations impact that ban not one bit.

As it stands, even with the new regulations, scientists can only use NIH money to study cell lines that somebody else paid to create. Again, the fact that new embryos would be fated for destruction delegitimizes them, even if on their way to total dismemberment they provided crucial and otherwise intangible cures (via cell-based therapies) for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, burns, heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, burns or diabetes.

Right now, thanks to voters who see the value of spending billions of dollars to increase the kind of research President Bush restricted, California is the source for the vast majority of new lines. Critics wonder why we need new lines now that President Obama has lifted the restrictions. But, as experts are finding, and as I postulate in a piece in the current issue of Brain, Child, frozen embryos accumulate damage when stored for an extended period of time. Some experts liken it to errors and fragmentation accumulating on a hard drive. In a shout out to the hominess that has overtaken my life since the success of my repeated rounds of IVF, I liken it to the off and dusty taste of waffles that languish in the freezer. In any case, frozen embryos, like waffles or fish or my epidermis or my old Dell, are only good for so long. You can't just keep them in the freezer forever with the assumption that, once you need them, you can simply scrape off the loam, pop them in the dish, and reap their full benefit.

Like others who recognize the potential benefit of creating new embryo lines for the sake of science, and those who believed President Obama when he promised to move us into a pro-science era, I believe it is time for Congress and President Obama to put money towards their statements and, if not underwriting the creation of new lines, to give tax breaks or some other credit to those who will. The current status -- allowing studies to be financed, but not allowing federal dollars to be spent on the right materials to study -- is silly and wasteful. I would also urge our elected officials to once more consider how destroying mere cell clusters, potential potential people as opposed to actual or even potential people, worse than turning our backs on the thousands of living, breathing human beings in need of a cure for their debilitating diseases.