More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Thompson Defends Bush's Decision on Stem Cell Research

BETHESDA, MD (Reuters Health) Aug 10 - The 60 or so stem cell lines qualifying for federally funded research under President George W. Bush's plan will be enough to drive rapidly progressing basic research into new cures, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Friday.

Thompson appeared here with several directors from the National Institutes of Health to lay out the Bush administration's plans for directing federally funded stem cell research under rules described by the president Thursday night. Many scientists have questioned whether the 60 qualifying stem cell lines identified by the president would provide an adequate stock of cells for all research needs.

"The more than 60 stem cell lines are diverse, they're robust, and they're viable for research," Thompson said. "We have great confidence that these existing lines will provide for very effective and productive research."

The NIH has identified the stem cell lines in six countries: the US, Israel, Australia, Sweden, Singapore, and India. Private companies hold patents on the lines, calling into question how the government will ensure that researchers can access stem cells for a fair price.

"We still have some very strong proprietary and patent issues to work through," Thompson acknowledged.

He said that he had talked with officials at WiCell Research Institute, Inc., a Wisconsin company that owns the licenses for at least six stem cell lines. Officials there have agreed to cooperate in making their cell lines easily available for NIH-sponsored research, Thompson said.

WiCell president Dr. Carl Gulbrandsen told lawmakers last week that the company typically makes cells available for private research for a $5000 fee. The company retains the commercial rights to any cures that come from research using their patented stem cells.

Several members of Congress have begun to criticize the NIH's system for guaranteeing access to patented research materials. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) said last week that he may introduce legislation that would loosen patent protections on stem cells to guarantee open access to them.

"This is a research tool, and as a research tool we encourage sharing," said Dr. Lana Skirboll, the NIH's associate director for science policy.

Under Bush's new plan, the NIH will be responsible for creating a national registry of acceptable stem cell lines. Researchers applying for federal research money will only be allowed to do their experiments on registered lines, Thompson said.

Qualifying lines must meet four basic criteria: they must have been derived from an embryo with the consent of the embryo's donors, they may only have been derived from excess embryos created for reproductive purposes at fertility clinics, the donor embryos must not have been donated in exchange for money, and all lines must have been derived on or before August 9, when the president announced his decision.

Some researchers have already expressed surprise at the president's statement last night that 60 or more cell lines met the criteria and could be used for federally funded research (see separate Reuters Health report today). They said that they were aware of no more than 12 existing, viable lines, only a handful of which are fit for research.

Thompson said that no one knew so many lines existed until the NIH contacted companies that were holding lines in secret for proprietary business reasons, but that NIH officials had confirmed the number as accurate. "No one had ever done a formal aggressive count until I asked NIH to do so a few weeks ago," Thompson said.

Several research and industry organizations have expressed concerns that limits on available cell lines could slow the progress of research into cures for dozens of diseases. The Biotechnology Industry Organization yesterday released a statement saying that limiting available stem cell lines could result in "roadblocks to medical science."

Robert B. Rich, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said researchers were just happy that federal money for stem cell research will be available. "If there are scientific issues with the limited cell lines, we will discover them through the research process," Rich said in a statement.

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd