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Scientists Bemoan Lack of Availability of Embryonic Cells

September 26, 2002|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — Almost 14 months after President Bush first allowed federal funding of limited human embryo cell research, U.S. scientists remain frustrated by a lack of access to the controversial cells, researchers told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.

The number of laboratories making the cells available to scientists has begun to increase, senators were told. And a handful of labs has now received grants from the National Institutes of Health to help scale up production and distribution of the medically promising cells.

Nonetheless, scientists said, the restrictive nature of the Bush policy, patent conflicts and the technical difficulty of keeping the fragile cells alive have conspired to stifle research in what they had hoped would be, by now, a highly energized research field.

"Embryonic stem cell research is crawling like a caterpillar," said Curt Civin, a pediatric oncologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The cells, Civin said, are accessible "only to those persistent and patient enough to jump through a series of hoops and endure lengthy waits. I am still waiting to receive my first stem cell line."

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education, said he is worried that delays could undermine the U.S. lead in the stem cell field. He noted that one expert witness appearing before the subcommittee had already moved his research from California to Britain's more inviting stem cell research climate.

"A big issue arises as to whether [the Bush policy] is adequate to carry on the research," said Specter, who supports proposed legislation--widely regarded as unachievable this year--to broaden federal support of the field.

Embryonic stem cells show therapeutic potential against a wide range of degenerative diseases, but the research is contentious because 5-day-old human embryos must be destroyed to obtain them. Opponents of the research point to evidence that similar cells taken harmlessly from adults may have equal potential.

Bush struck a compromise, funding research on cells derived from embryos destroyed no later than Aug. 9, 2001. Since then a debate has raged over whether those 70 or so cell lines are robust and diverse enough to satisfy scientists' needs.

Elias Zerhouni, the new NIH director, told the subcommittee that his agency is working hard to make the eligible cells more available. The NIH has awarded $4.3 million to five laboratories that account for 23 approved cell lines, he said. Those and two additional pending awards are to help labs scale up the growth, testing, quality assurance and distribution of cells.

The NIH has also helped four cell-supplying laboratories develop material transfer agreements that spell out the intellectual property rights of distributors and receivers. Six labs on the NIH campus have received cells under those agreements, Zerhouni said, as have about 74 researchers at dozens of institutions in the United States and abroad. The NIH has awarded scientists more than $4.2 million to initiate experiments on the cells.

Roger Pedersen, the California researcher who moved to Cambridge University in England, said none of the cell lines approved by Bush have real therapeutic potential because they were cultivated with mouse cells, making them all but ineligible for transplantation into humans. In contrast, he said, his team is developing new colonies that he hopes will pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration.

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