The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave approval Wednesday for 13 new lines of human embryonic stem cells to be made available to federally funded researchers. The decision ends a logjam that resulted from a Bush administration policy banning government-backed research on lines created after August 9, 2001. President Barack Obama lifted those restrictions in March.

For the past eight years, medical researchers, biologists and others who wanted to study new embryonic stem cell lines have been limited to raising research money privately and making sure no federal money came even close to their work. "You can imagine what it meant not to be able to carry a pipette from one room to another," Ali Brivanlou, who heads a molecular embryology laboratory at Rockefeller University in New York, told The New York Times about the challenges of working under the ban.

The NIH has signed off on more than $20 million in grant funds so far to support research on the new lines, which are derived from unused embryos created in fertility clinics, the Times noted. More than 20 additional stem cell lines will come up for approval on Friday, the NIH reported.

"This is the first down payment on what is going to be a much longer list that will empower the scientific community to explore the potential of embryonic stem cell research," NIH Director Francis Collins said, it was reported.

Despite support for federally funded stem cell research among what Obama called "the majority of Americans from across the political spectrum," opposition to stem cell research is still strong among certain sectors. In late November, the University of Nebraska considered tightening its policy on stem cell research beyond the federal government's restrictions. The school's board of regents narrowly dismissed the measure on a 4-4 vote. 

Numerous researchers are looking forward to access to many new embryonic stem cell lines that have been kept in suspension for years. "This is the first step toward widely expanded access to hundreds of lines that have derived since the initial Bush policy of 2001," George Daley, a researcher at Harvard University and creator of 11 of the already-approved stem cell lines, told Bloomberg News. "It's been a long time coming, and it's a huge relief."

Image of embryonic stem cells courtesy of Wikimedia Commons