A Quick Word About Human Embryo Model Systems

Rapidly emerging areas of science can pose interesting challenges for policy frameworks intended to provide oversight of biomedical research or statutory limitations on NIH funding. A recent example, as described in this story on NPR, is an area of research in which scientists are hoping to gain insight on human development by creating structures that model certain aspects of embryonic development. The methods used to create these various model systems generally use human pluripotent stem cells, which are then differentiated into cell types with characteristics and/or organization similar to those seen in human embryos.

NIH has had a long-standing statutory limitation on funding research involving human embryos. The limitation, sometimes called the ‘Dickey-Wicker” amendment, is included annually in HHS appropriations language and has been incorporated into the NIH Grants Policy Statement (GPS). The GPS specifies that “NIH funds may not be used for (1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes…”

You can probably anticipate the question I usually have to address. Can research involving various models of aspects of human embryo development be supported by NIH? The answer is “it depends.”

As a steward of taxpayer funds, NIH considers, on a case-by-case basis, whether we can support specific research proposals given the limitations set by the NIH GPS. NIH applies the same considerations to both research proposing the use of human embryos and research that aims to create or use experimental systems with human cells that model human embryos. We examine all experimental details specific to that experiment in order to make an informed decision about whether the research could be supported.

It is also important to note that even if NIH were to determine that proposed research is supportable under the limitation–NIH Institutes and Centers consider scientific merit, program priorities, their portfolio balance, and the availability of funds in making final funding decisions.

To help identify and better understand some of the unknowns associated with this nascent field of research, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine will be holding a state of the science workshop on mammalian embryo model systems on Friday, January 17, 2020. I am looking forward to hearing more from the experts in the field about the opportunities and challenges that face this type of research.

Related Blog Post: Sharing Our Current Thinking: Models Containing Aspects of Human Embryos

Posted by Dr. Carrie D. Wolinetz, October 10, 2019