WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Aug 22 - The US National Institutes of Health
opened talks on Tuesday with a key Wisconsin group as the agency sought to
ensure that federally funded researchers get access to human embryonic stem
cells from the organizations and companies that hold supplies of them.
NIH negotiators met with representatives of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), including University of Wisconsin stem cell research pioneer Dr. James Thomson, to discuss the terms under which the foundation's stem cells could be made available, said WARF spokesman Andrew Cohn. The foundation has five stem cell lines.
The two sides also addressed key scientific issues such as how to evaluate the quality of a stem cell line, Cohn said. WARF is a non-profit technology licensing foundation affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. Thomson in 1998 became the first researcher to isolate human embryonic stem cells.
President Bush announced on August 9 that he will allow federal funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells, but said that government money would pay for research involving only existing stem cell lines. Bush said that 60 of these cell lines exist, and many scientists have since questioned that figure.
A NIH spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name, said the agency this week is speaking with "all of the holders of the stem cell lines," either in person or by telephone.
"The NIH is very interested in clearing the way to get the stem cell lines into the hands of NIH-funded researchers as absolutely quickly as possible. And so the talks would be to advance that general goal," the spokesman said.
NIH officials have said the cell lines are held in the United States, Australia, Israel, Sweden, Singapore and India. So far, the NIH has refused to identify the companies or organizations that possess stem cell lines beyond those that have stepped forward themselves, which include Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, California, and Australian companies BresaGen Inc. and ES Cell International Pte Ltd.
BresaGen holds four stem cell lines at its US offices in Athens, Georgia. Dr. Allan Robins, senior vice president and chief scientific officer for BresaGen, said the company would allow NIH researchers free access, provided that the researchers agree to give the company first crack at acquiring rights to any commercially useful applications that are discovered.
"We don't want to restrict the field of use or the research that the researchers might want to conduct with the cells," Robins said. "Our preference would be to be giving the cells away — in other words, no upfront fee — and that we would have a first right of refusal to any intellectual property that was invented using the cells."
Robins, who said he was heading to Washington to speak with NIH officials, said the "only restriction that we can think of putting in there is that the cells wouldn't be used to try to clone somebody."
Cohn, of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, said he did not expect problems in reaching an agreement with the NIH. "We've been coming to accommodations with researchers for a year and a half. And we're excited that now there's federal money available and we'll be able to do that with more researchers," Cohn said.
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