More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Embryo stem cells to stay under private control

By Todd Zwillich

BETHESDA, Md., Dec 06 (Reuters Health) - The US government will not take control of the limited supply of human embryonic stem cells for medical research, despite concerns among scientists that private interests will restrict access to the cells, officials said Thursday.

The agency is preparing to fund approximately a half dozen research groups in the first round of federally funded embryonic stem cell experiments allowed under a directive issued by President Bush August 9.

But researchers remain skeptical about the availability of the approximately 60 cell lines falling within the rules. The lines rest in private hands in several countries, and many scientists have lobbied the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a federally-controlled repository for the cells to prevent patent and licensing disagreements from interfering with free-flowing disease research.

"There's considerable angst in terms of having every possible avenue to approach this research," said Dr. Bette Sue Masters, who represents the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology on NIH's policy advisory committee.

Masters said that scientists continue to urge NIH take control over access to the cells or to allow a nonprofit organization like the American Type Culture Collection to store the cell lines and send them to researchers who qualify for NIH money.

Experts are also concerned about access because investigators remain unsure if the lines will properly reproduce in the laboratory, she said

"There are all sorts of problems regarding how they grow," acting NIH director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein said at a meeting of the advisory committee.

Dr. Wendy Baldwin, NIH's deputy director of Extramural Research, acknowledged that there is "very, very variable" quality in the available stem cell lines. But NIH officials have no plans to take control of the cells.

"That's not a discussion that we think is actually timely right now," Baldwin said. Some of the cell lines are patented, and NIH officials worry that a central repository could violate intellectual property rights, she said.

Several lines are held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) in cooperation with WiCell, a private company based in the state. The company has reached an agreement with NIH on supplying stem cells for research at internal agency labs and has said it will offer similar agreements to outside researchers using government money for experiments.

Since Bush's announcement, NIH has taken on the role of information clearing house, linking interested researchers with stem cell suppliers through its Internet site.

Instead of forming a repository, the agency is planning to send $200,000 to $300,000 per year in "infrastructure grants" to entities whose cell lines are not ready for research. Baldwin called the grants "key" to promoting the basic research necessary to prepare their cells for scientific trials.

President Bush announced on August 9 that he would permit NIH to fund research on human embryonic stem cells, but only on cells that had been derived before the announcement was made. The rules also required that the stem cells come from embryos created for the purpose of in vitro fertilization and that the embryos' donors consented to their use for research.

Many scientists believe that human embryonic stem cells could lead to cures for a host of human diseases since the cells have the ability to differentiate into a range of body tissue.

NIH's saw its progress on initiating stem cell research funding slowed by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Baldwin suggested that agency officials would wait and see how their chosen system for distributing cell lines performs before revisiting the issue of a national repository for the cells.

"We might be having a different discussion in 12 or 18 months," she said.

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited