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Uncertainty Is Thwarting Stem Cell Researchers

Policy: A top scientist is leaving for Britain, as human embryo cell funding in U.S. remains unresolved.

July 16, 2001|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — One of the nation's leading stem cell researchers is leaving California to work in Britain, in part because of the political uncertainties surrounding the use of human embryonic material in the United States.

The decision by Roger Pedersen of UC San Francisco, which the university confirmed Sunday, is the latest and one of the most dramatic illustrations of the political problems that researchers are facing as they attempt to understand embryonic stem cells. Many scientists think the cells hold the key to creating treatments for a wide range of diseases.

Because President Bush has suspended a plan to federally fund such research, pending a review of whether it is legal and ethical, scientists are uncertain whether they can continue their work, and others have chosen not to enter the field. Bush has said he will make a decision whether to adopt a funding plan within weeks, and the lobbying battle to sway him, which pits patient advocates against anti-abortion groups, has become as fierce as any yet in his administration.

At the same time, academic researchers who have private funding for embryonic cell experiments, which are legal, have been told in many cases that they must do their work off campus, an effort to make sure federal dollars do not pay for even a light bulb involved in the controversial work.

And some researchers say they are finding it hard to work with the private companies that control much of the limited, existing supply of stem cells, because the companies are asking for rights to research results that universities do not want to sign away.

"If federal support for stem cell research is not forthcoming, the risk exists that talented scientists will leave academic centers to seek opportunities in the private sector, or even overseas," said Dr. Haile Debas, dean of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine. "That would be a tragedy of the greatest proportion."

More than 100 research teams have requested human embryonic stem cells from WiCell Research Institute Inc.--the main supplier in the U.S. and one of only a handful in the world--but only 30 teams have received the cells.

"If there was federal funding available, there would be 70 more groups taking cells very, very quickly," said Andrew Cohn, a spokesman for WiCell. "And we think there would be a lot more asking, after that."

Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become nearly every other cell and tissue type in the body, raising hopes that they can one day be used to fashion replacement parts for failing organs. But anti-abortion groups say the research is equivalent to murder, because embryos are destroyed in order to harvest the cells.

Those opposed to using embryonic stem cells argue that research can go forward with adult cells, though many scientists say such cells are more limited in their potential.

Bush suggested during the election campaign last summer that he opposed embryonic cell research, but he has asked his staff to review the science, law and ethics involved. Research advocates take that as a signal that he is considering whether to change his initial position.

At UC San Francisco, Pedersen has been director of the reproductive genetics unit within the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences.

He is well known for his work in exploring how mouse embryonic stem cells give rise to various parts of the animal's body. He also is working with human embryonic cells, a university spokeswoman said, and had been trying to derive stem cells from human embryos donated by fertility clinic patients.

Pedersen declined to discuss the political situation in the United States, but said he was leaving for "the possibility of carrying out my research with human embryonic stem cells with public support."

Though he is leaving, Pedersen is expected to maintain some ties to UC San Francisco.

Debas, the medical school dean, said Pedersen "is obviously seeking an opportunity where he can do his work with less difficulty than he faces in the United States."

Rules vary around the world on whether it is ethical and legal to work with embryos. Many European nations have barred or discouraged the work, but the British Parliament last year explicitly authorized research involving embryonic cells, as well as the creation of embryos for research purposes, for scientists who obtain licenses.

That action made Britain one of the most permissive nations on embryo work, though teams in Israel, Australia and Singapore have also aggressively pursued work on human embryonic stem cells.

Pedersen in April suspended his own work in harvesting human stem cells from embryos until it could be moved off campus. The move was undertaken to make sure the university was following National Institutes of Health rules that bar the federal government from covering overhead costs, for such things as lighting or refrigeration, for research involving human embryonic stem cells.

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