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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 these challenges.

Mr. Wong received his B.S. in Microbiology from the University of Maryland. He has worked as a microbiologist and technical information specialist in
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

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 job?

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 area.

Submitted by: Kyle Gracey, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2003 Fall Intern