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Rules brake stem cell advance: Amid progress, Hub conference decries limits

Friday, June 11, 2004
Jennifer Heldt Powell
Boston Herald

Researchers yesterday unveiled lines of stem cells cultured from embryos with certain diseases - a breakthrough that could lead to a greater understanding of what causes the illnesses and how to stop them.

But those lines won't make it into the hands of some top researchers because of federal funding restrictions, said scientists who gathered in Boston yesterday.

Federal funding can only be used to study cells derived from a small set of embryonic stem cell lines created before restrictions were put in place in 2001. Researchers can't even use equipment paid for by the National Institutes of Health to study cells from unsanctioned lines.

"What we're doing is drawing an artifical line between what is sanctioned and what is not," said Douglas Melton, a Harvard University researcher.

Scientists who get NIH funds but want to do work on cells from new lines must set off an area of their lab or set up new lab space and equipment.

The funding debate is one of the hottest topics at the International Society for Stem Cell Research's second annual meeting, a four-day event that started yesterday in Boston.

President Bush [related, bio] restricted stem cell research funding over ethical concerns. Stem cell lines are created from embryos, generally donated by fertility clinics.

The lines announced yesterday came from separate, privately funded research efforts. Among them are lines developed from embryos that had genetic defects that lead to multiple sclerosis, a rare neurological disease, and to a blood disease.

By watching the stem cells develop, researchers hope to see how they differ from normal cells.

The loss of federal money for basic embryonic stem cell research has slowed the work and will delay treatments and cures that it could yield, Melton and others said.

University researchers must rely on scarce private funding to study cells from unsanctioned lines. But that may make it more likely that research results will be acquired by private companies that won't share their findings.

Some states, such as New Jersey and California, are moving to fill the void. Local stem cell research advocates hope that Massachusetts will beef up its support of the work as well.

Researchers are concerned, however, that federal guidelines will pose problems when state-supported researchers want to share their information.

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