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University of Minnesota's stem cell researchers available for interviews on ban lift

March 6, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to sign an executive order Monday overturning the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cells (hESC) research and is looking to Congress to introduce legislation to act on the issue. On Aug. 9, 2001, the Bush administration cut off federal research support for hESC except for those hESC lines derived before that date. The available researchers include:
 
Jonathan Slack, director of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute (the nations first established stem cell institute)
 
Slack said the change will prompt more researchers to get into the study of embryonic stem cells, more researchers will be able to study the stem cells and that means that possible treatments will get to patients more quickly. Embryonic stem cells can be studied with federal funding now, if they were developed before the August 2001 date set by the Bush administration. Stem cells developed after that date can only be studied using private funding which raises an issue, he says. Companies doing such research don't have to tell people what they are doing -- they dont have to. They dont have to meet the standards of transparency and disclosure that federally-funded workers have to meet. Slack can also speak about the importance of embryonic stem cells and about adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. 
 
Dan Kaufman, associate professor of medicine and associate director of the institute.
 
When Bush made that policy, it was estimated that 60 to 70 lines were eligible, Kaufman says. But, the number of lines actually available and usable hovers closer to 12-15; meanwhile, the number of hESC lines available worldwide has grown to about 1,000, he says. Until now, Kaufman says, people using approved human hESC lines could use only about 1 percent of those available. Kaufman is studying the development of normal blood cells and creating populations of natural killer white blood cells that specialize in attacking cancer cells or HIV. He has used hESCs from federally approved lines to make natural killer cells, but looks forward to having a wider choice of cells to work with.
 
Meri Firpo, assistant professor in the Stem Cell Institute in the department of medicine and division of endocrinology and in the Schulze Diabetes Institute at the University of Minnesota.
 

Firpo works on stem cell biology and potential transplantation therapies for diabetes using human embryonic stem cells as well as other types of stem cells. If former President Bushs federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research are lifted, it will have a major impact, Firpo says. The University of Minnesotas dedication to innovative stem cell research with private funding has made it possible for Firpo to continue developing new embryonic stem cell lines and doing research on those stem cell lines with nongovernmental funds. However, researchers at other institutions have not been as fortunate; their universities havent provided the infrastructure or support needed to continue. Being able to share with more people will have a huge impact, she says. Because of the federal funding restrictions, many researchers were hesitant to get into the field of human embryonic stem cells. The national policy change is already impacting the U of M Stem Cell Institute; Enrollment is booming in its NIH-funded course on hESCs.

To interview one of these experts, contact the University News Service, (612) 624-5551.

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