After eight years in the cold, stem cell research is poised to benefit from the open support of the Obama administration.
Under the Bush presidency, federal funding was distributed only to researchers experimenting on 21 existing stem cell lines, thus limiting developments in the field. When President Barack Obama lifted the ban on March 9, he made federal funding available for the study of new embryonic stem lines, and UCSB researchers stand to gain from his decision.
Dennis Clegg, chair of the Dept. of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, said the Bush-era ban had significantly hindered the progress of biological research for almost a decade.
“Back in 2001, President Bush said you could only use federal funding when using existing [stem cell] lines,” Clegg said. “So, it really slowed down the progress of stem cell research in the country. Now with the lifting of the ban, it will lessen the red tape associated with this kind of study and provide new funding for stem cell research.”
Clegg said new research into regenerative medicines such as stem cells has the potential to render many fatal diseases harmless, or at least make them readily treatable.
“We are in a very exciting time for stem cell research right now,” Clegg said. “Stem cell research has great potential for treating a variety of human diseases like macular degeneration, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”
A co-director of strategy, planning and operations at the UCSB Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering, Clegg said UCSB has the power to make major advancements in the growing field.
“We have quite a bit of exciting work going on in basic molecular biology and bioengineering, and we’re partnering with other universities and institutions to bring our findings to clinical applications,” Clegg said. “I think UCSB has unique strengths that will allow us to make a significant contribution in the field of stem cell research.”
Lincoln Johnson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Macular Degeneration, said the removal of the ban now ensures more options for the treatment of human diseases using natural mechanisms.
“Not all embryonic stem cell lines are the same,” Johnson said. “So for instance, with cardiac muscle for the treatment heart disease, one stem cell line might be better than another, so it’s important to have a variety. For regenerative medicine such as constructing organs, having a wider variety of stem cells to choose from will help better match the donor organ to the recipient.”
Despite the avenues of stem cell research opened by the Obama administration, Johnson said the field is still in its infancy.
“There’s a lot of research to be done, but having more cell lines and more funding will speed up the process,” Johnson said. “The better the research and the more people involved, the greater influence UCSB might have on policy formation.”
In addition to getting the go-ahead for more stem cell research, professor of chemical engineering Frank Doyle said UCSB has plans to open a new bioengineering building that will be suited for new developments in national research.
“We are in the planning stages of trying to set up a bioengineering building and we’re probably about four years away from realizing this dream,” Doyle said. “It would be a home to a rich range of engineers, chemists, biologists and physicists. I think what were hoping this building will be home to a big thrust of research on the campus, particularly an interface between medicine and engineering.”
For those interested in learning more about stem cell research, UCSB offers a class this quarter in Life Sciences Building 1001 – MCDB 146: Stem Cell Biology in Health and Disease taught by Professor Clegg. Students can also consult the UCSB Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering’s Web site, www.stemcell.ucsb.edu.