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Stem Cell Research
Careers in Science From the Field
Baldwin Wong is a Science Policy Program Analyst
and Chief of the Science Policy and Planning Branch at the National
Institute on Deafness and Other Comm-unication Disorders (NIDCD),
part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Branch coordinates
and manages the activities of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, which
is made up of leading NIH scientists that manage or conduct stem
cell research. The Task Force works to identify obstacles to the
NIH stem cell research agenda and to develop strategies to overcome
Mr. Wong received his B.S. in Microbiology from the University of
Maryland. He has worked as a microbiologist and technical information
the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD),
and has also served in the NIH Office of AIDS Research.
What is your profession?
I am Chief of the Science Policy and Planning Branch at the National
Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
The NIDCD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an
agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What are the responsibilities of your profession(s)?
I am responsible for providing advice to the Institute Director,
Deputy Director, Executive Officer and Division Directors regarding
planning, evaluation, program policy, and legislative analytical
needs of the NIDCD.
In August 2002, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Director of NIH, established
the NIH Stem Cell Task Force and appointed Dr. James Battey, Director
of NIDCD, as the Chairperson. My responsibilities were expanded
to include managing the activities of Stem Cell Task Force. The
purpose of the Stem Cell Task Force is to enable and accelerate
the pace of stem cell research by identifying rate-limiting resources
and developing initiatives to enhance these resources. The Stem
Cell Task Force seeks the advice of scientific leaders in stem cell
research about the challenges in moving forward the stem cell research
agenda, and strategies NIH may pursue to overcome these challenges.
The Stem Cell Task Force is comprised of NIH scientists that appreciate
the opportunity of stem cells and the potential that this research
may have in leading to new therapeutic intervention strategies.
What research is the NIH involved in to further human embryonic
stem cell research?
Under the President's August 9, 2001 policy, research on human
embryonic stem cells (hESCs) may receive NIH funding only if the
researcher uses cell lines that meet certain criteria. These criteria
mandate that the removal of cells from the embryo must have been
initiated before August 9, 2001, and the embryo from which the stem
cell line was derived must no longer have had the possibility of
developing further as a human being. The embryo must have been created
for reproductive purposes but no longer be needed for them. Informed
consent must have been obtained from the parent(s) for the donation
of the embryo, and no financial inducements for donation are allowed.
The NIH maintains a registry of those lines that satisfy the above
criteria. Currently, there are 12 hESCs lines available for researchers
that are eligible for Federal funding, with more lines anticipated
in the future. There are 71 unique hESC derivations, most of which
are in the early phases of development and have not been expanded
or characterized to the point where they could be readily distributed
to the research community. However, the available hESC lines are
being used to address the basic biologic questions that must be
answered before the cells can be used in human therapies. For example,
hESCs have the remarkable capacity to continue to grow indefinitely
in an unspecialized state. In research involving other cell types,
much has been learned about key regulators of cell division. Additional
research is needed to determine how to harness the molecular systems
that control this process, so that once transplanted, the specialized
cells developed from embryonic stem cells do not revert to their
embryonic state and grow in an uncontrolled fashion, leading to
tumors or other undesirable outcomes.
Such basic research is only the first phase of the journey along
the pathway of human embryonic stem cell research. There are many
pre-clinical studies, which do not involve human subjects, which
need to be performed before any new therapeutic modality advances
to clinical trials on humans. These studies include tests of the
long-term survival and fate of transplanted cells, cell-dosing studies,
as well as tests of the safety, toxicity, and effectiveness of the
cells in treating animal models for disease.
Since the President announced the use of Federal funds to support
research on hESCs on August 9, 2001, the NIH has taken the lead
in the government's effort to enable scientists wishing to
study the biology of stem cells. As is true for any new area of
research, progress depends on attracting outstanding scientists
to design and perform basic research studies, which may eventually
translate into treatment methods. Because the hESC field is at the
early stage, there is a shortage of researchers with expertise in
this area. This shortage is currently a rate-limiting step in advancing
the progress of embryonic stem cell research. Simply growing embryonic
stem cells to the state where they can be used for experimentation
requires substantial knowledge, training and experience.
Therefore, NIH is striving to make stem cell research as attractive
as possible to the most talented research scientists, whose creativity
in developing investigator-initiated research will move the research
agenda forward. To accomplish this, NIH is providing opportunities
for the scientific community to develop training courses for researchers
to acquire the skills needed to culture embryonic stem cells, as
well as opportunities to support stem cell research career pathways.
NIH is supporting short-term training courses to teach investigators
how best to grow stem cells into useful lines, in addition to soliciting
career enhancement awards to train mid-career scientists to use
stem cells in research. With the complexity of stem cell biology,
NIH is supporting grants that use a multi-discipline, multi-investigator
team approach to conduct hESC research by way of exploratory centers.
In addition to the above initiatives, the NIH is stimulating the
research field by issuing numerous other announcements for research
on human, animal and adult stem cells. The NIH does not have a cap
to the amount of funding for stem cell research.
To help make more hESC lines available to the research community,
the NIH is supporting "Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Resource
Infrastructure Enhancement Awards" to allow sources of human
embryonic stem cells to scale-up and distribute cell lines. Expanding
and characterizing cells derived from human embryos is a process
that consumes both time and resources. To date, NIH has awarded
nine infrastructure grants. These awards have resulted in the scale-up
of 12 hESC lines, which are available for widespread distribution
to researchers in this country and abroad.
In addition, NIH is receiving investigator-initiated research grant
applications from new investigators conducting studies using human
embryonic stem cells. NIH has issued administrative supplements
to existing grant awards to enable experienced researchers from
different academic institutions to rapidly incorporate research
on human embryonic stem cells as part their ongoing federally supported
research. These supplements permit currently funded laboratories
to extend their research to include human embryonic stem cells.
This will enable scientists to develop their skills using these
difficult cells and develop some preliminary data -- both key steps
to success in future research.
It is also important to note that research on human adult stem cells
has no restrictions. Adult stem cells have been studied for decades
and this research has resulted in treatments for blood cancers and
certain disorders of the blood. Research on both adult and embryonic
stem cells must be pursued simultaneously in order to learn as much
as possible about the potential of these cells to treat human disease.
Both embryonic and adult stem cells show promise for the development
of cell-based therapies--at this time it is impossible to predict
which type of stem cells will be optimal for a given clinical application,
so there is a need to continue to support research using all types
of stem cells.
The NIH has created a Stem Cell Characterization Unit within its
intramural research program. The mission of this Unit is to provide
reliable and standardized data derived from assays performed on
hESC lines that are being shipped to researchers, and make these
data available to the research community. Performing these assays
in a single laboratory will allow a direct side-by-side comparison
to be made.
The NIH Stem Cell Task Force continues to monitor the state of this
rapidly evolving area of science. Additional information concerning
stem cell research supported by the NIH may be found on the NIH
stem cell web site at http://stemcells.nih.gov.
What is your role or involvement in this research?
My office manages the activities of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force.
To seek advice in ways to move forward a research agenda, the Stem
Cell Task Force convened five working groups of scientists this
past year. The working groups discussed topics on career pathways
for stem cell scientists, accessing stem cell lines, peer review
of stem cell grant applications, supporting technologies and tools
for stem cell research, and stem cell research outreach. My office
also organized NIH's first human embryonic stem cell research
symposium, which brought together an international forum of NIH-supported
scientists conducting research in this new field of science. In
addition, my office serves as the NIH focal point for information
requests on stem cell research. Maintenance of the NIH stem cell
web site and the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry are also
responsibilities of my office.
How did you become interested in stem cell research?
I have always been interested in biology, having majored in microbiology
in college. Human embryonic stem cell research is a new and exciting
field that offers the potential for alleviating debilitating diseases
such as Parkinson's disease, heart disease and diabetes.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your
The ethical and political issues surrounding human embryonic stem
cells have brought high visibility to this research.
For students who are interested in conducting human embryonic
stem cell research in their future careers, what kind of experience,
paid or unpaid, should they start to acquire now?
There is a need to encourage scientists into this exciting new field.
The rate-limiting step to moving this field of science forward is
the lack of trained scientists who have skills in stem cell biology.
To gain knowledge, take courses in cell or developmental biology.
To gain experience, volunteer in a laboratory during the summer
or during the semester.
Any other advice that you would give to someone who is interested
in a career in stem cell research?
Keep informed of new developments in the field by talking to stem
cell biologists, and continue to read science publications in this
Submitted by: Kyle Gracey, Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, 2003 Fall Intern