The day after the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it was ready to start approving stem cell lines for federal funding, the hallways of the World Stem Cell Summit in Baltimore, Maryland, were abuzz with excitement — and confusion.
In the morning, I chatted with Baldwin Wong, executive secretary of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, who showed me the website that lists all the lines that have already been submitted for consideration. Two research groups were first out of the gate. After day one, 15 lines had been put forward by an investigator at Children’s Hospital Boston in Massachusetts — presumably by George Daley, according to Wong — and another two lines were offered up by someone at The Rockefeller University in New York City. All of these lines were sent in with requests for special consideration by the NIH’s nine-member panel — meaning they don’t likely satisfy the strict criteria outlined in the NIH’s new guidelines, but they can be ‘grandfathered’ in if they adhere to certain principles of informed consent.
By the afternoon, another submission had rolled in. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia had requested that the NIH consider approving a cell line called H1. Two strange things struck Wong about this submission. First, the UPenn application was filed for administrative review, which bypasses the working group, rather than special consideration. This implies that the claimant has confidence that the line meets the NIH’s 7 July criteria. Second, and more puzzling, H1 is the same name as the Bush-era approved cell line derived by James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has been the second most commonly studied human embryonic stem line, according to a recent Nature Biotechnology study.
Marian Piekarczyk, assistant director of lab operations at the WiCell Research Institute, a UW-Madison-linked center that hosts the NIH’s National Stem Cell Bank (NSCB), was perplexed. She said that only Thomson and people who worked in his lab would have access to the necessary consent forms to submit a full application for the Madison-derived cell line. What’s more, she doubted that Thomson’s H1, which was derived in the late 1990’s, met the letter of the 2009 law. She suspected that more than one cell line might share the same name. No further details were available at the meeting.
Piekarczyk also noted that the NSCB, which stores and distributes cells that were eligible for federal funding under prior presidential policy, was not planning on submitting applications for the 21 cell lines under its roof. That job would be left to the individual institutions and companies that derived those cells, she said.
It’s not clear what the NSCB’s role will be once more cells are approved — or even if the cell bank’s contract will be renewed after it expires in February 2010. “It’s all based on whether we see a need for banking in the future,” Wong told me. He said that the NIH might consider funding a series of mini-banks. Or distribution might be left to private and institutional repositories, such as those found at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey, and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.