Francis Collins, the new director of the US National Institutes of Health, says that he had no timetable for when the NIH will re-establish a registry listing human embryonic stem cell lines eligible for human research funding. He did, however, say that the registry would be a “very high priority.”
Last month the NIH announced guidelines for hESC research that outlined strict informed consent criteria for the donation and use of embryos. Existing, well-studied hES cell lines, many previously eligible for federal funding, do not meet these criteria exactly, and the NIH announced that it would soon establish a working group to ascertain whether these lines were derived with adequate informed consent. However, said Collins, the NIH will not seek out which lines to examine. Instead, researchers must submit applications to the working group that document and explain how the lines meet informed consent standards at the time of derivation. This process, said Collins, will ensure that the lines of the greatest scientific interest are examined first. Until then, some researchers worry that funding for their work is in limbo. (See uncertainty around NIH guidelines)
The American stem cell community generally welcomes the creation of one registry maintained by a central authority. This will prevent redundant work and unsettling inconsistencies between institutions’ ethical oversight committees. (See NIH guidelines please scientists) But the community does not like the current uncertainty. The NIH is in a difficult spot here: it must act quickly so as not to stall fast-paced research, but it also must act carefully to assure that ethics and the rights of donors are upheld.
A recent analysis criticized informed-consent standards on the 2001 NIH embryonic stem cell registry. See When the past catches up with the present.
Thanks to Nature reporter Elie Dolgin for asking Collins about the registry at yesterday’s press conference and passing on his voice file to me. Here is his article with Nature News.