Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the potential to develop into many different cell types such as muscle, brain, or red blood cells. Stem cells can be obtained either from early embryos that have not yet developed any specialized cells, or from certain non-embryonic cells that have some potential to develop into some other cell types. Because of these cells’ potential to become specialized cells of various types, they hold great promise for research into the causes and treatment of birth defects, chronic diseases, debilitating injuries and other conditions.
In November 2008, Michigan voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that overturned a law from 1978 prohibiting the use of human embryos for research. This change allows scientists in Michigan to participate in cutting-edge research with embryonic stem cells. Additionally, the new amendment allows Michigan researchers to compete for millions of dollars in federal money that President Obama made available as of March 2, 2009 to stimulate new embryonic stem cell research. Despite these changes in state and federal law, there are still many restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. For example, Michigan allows the use of human embryos for research only under specific conditions:
- The embryos were created for the purpose of fertility treatment, and
- Would otherwise have been discarded, either because they were not suitable for clinical use or because they were no longer needed for fertility treatment.
- Were donated to research through informed, written consent by the person seeking fertility treatment without any payment.
- Stem cells can only be obtained from those embryos that are 14 days or less in their development.
There are also federal guidelines that apply to the expenditure of funds from the National Institutes of Health for research using human embryonic stem cells as well as certain uses of induced pluripotent (i.e. non-embryonic) stem cells.
In order to provide ethical and scientific oversight to scientists at Wayne State University (WSU) who are involved in human stem cell research, the WSU Stem Cell Research Oversight (SCRO) Committee was formed in April 2009. Its membership includes scientists, ethicists, and lay persons as well as representatives from WSU’s Office of the General Counsel and Research Administration. Some of the SCRO committee members also serve on the Institutional Review Board and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which review proposed human and animal research, respectively. The WSU SCRO committee reviews all proposed research at WSU involving the derivation or use of human stem cells as detailed in the WSU SCRO Policy.