Despite controversy, governments plan to finance projects focused on human embryonic stem cells
Mar. 18, 2002
The Scientist 16:52
By Ted Agres
The American Red Cross, the first organization to receive a human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research grant in from the US government, surprised the scientific community by rejecting the money, fanning the international policy debate over the use of these cells. Citing a change in research policy, the organization, which manages most of the US blood supply, turned down a $50,000 (US) grant to expand its research of mouse umbilical cells into the controversial HESCs.
Nevertheless, the National Institutes of Health joins granting agencies in Europe and Canada in evaluating further applications for government HESC funding. NIH administrators plan to award at least $4 million in supplemental and training grants and infrastructure awards in 2002. In addition, NIH institutes and centers will hand out an unspecified amount of funding for new research projects, according to Wendy Baldwin, deputy director for extramural research. "We have eight or nine applications in the review cycle now," she says. "They will be reviewed for scientific merit and then go to the summer round of council reviews. What we spend depends on the requests we receive."
Governments Juggle Coins and Controversy
For the first time, under rules announced last year by President George W. Bush, federal funds are available for research using HESC lines certified by the US government.1 At present, 78 cell lines from 14 organizations are included in the NIH stem cell registry (escr.nih.gov). Because human embryos were destroyed to harvest the stem cells, the research is ethically and politically controversial.
Some European governments have reacted cautiously to the controversy. In Germany, the government plans to fund research only with cells harvested from embryos cloned in other countries and, as a practical matter, will likely fund work on cells listed on the NIH registry, according to Hans-Dieter Lucas, press attachè of the German Embassy in Washington, DC. German law prohibits the manufacturing of these cells within the country, but the government already is funding one project with imported HESC, Lucas adds.
After much debate, the British Parliament cleared the way for government-funded HESC work late last year, and the Medical Research Council has committed £1.5 million for sponsored research in the 2002 funding year, according to Louise Brown, an MRC spokesperson in London. In late February, a special Parliament committee approved government funding for stem cell research using therapeutic cloning. This opens the door for a full range of stem cell activities, including creation of human embryos for research.
Canadian scientists have maintained a voluntary moratorium on HESC for years. But in March, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) issued new guidelines that would permit government funding for HESC research. Opponents argue this policy change requires legislative approval from the Canadian parliament.
Changing Courses Midstream
Despite rules allowing limited HESC research in the United States, the funding program remains controversial. In February, NIH announced the award of a $50,000 supplemental grant to Robert Hawley, researcher at the Red Cross's Jerome H. Holland Laboratory for Biomedical Sciences in Rockville, MD. Hawley had already been researching blood stem cells in mice under a previous grant. The supplemental award, issued by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, would allow him to use HESC from cell lines provided by the Wi-Cell Research Institute, a non-profit subsidiary of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and one of the 14 suppliers of NIH-certified cell lines, Baldwin says.
But the newly installed chief scientific officer for the Red Cross, Jerry Squires, subsequently decided not to pursue that line of inquiry. In a statement released in February, Squires, also a vice president of the organization, said: "The American Red Cross has reviewed and refined its strategic research priorities. These priorities do not include the work described in the supplement. Therefore, the American Red Cross has decided not to accept the grant."
Since 1997, the charity has collected HESCs from umbilical cord blood, a far less controversial research method. Umbilical cord blood is a source of transplantable stem cells that can give rise to all other components of blood, including red and white blood cells and platelets.
The Red Cross "remains committed to conducting innovative research and development programs designed to contribute to biomedical science," according to Squires' statement. Blythe Kubina, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said Squires was not available for interviews. Some researchers have suggested the Red Cross rejected funds because the leaders want to avoid negative publicity after criticism of its handling of money donated to victims of the September 11 attacks.2
The charity's action took NIH officials by surprise, but they remain upbeat about funding new and continuing HESC projects as well as the necessary infrastructure. "We've heard over and over that these cells are not easy to work with," Baldwin explains. NIH anticipates awarding 4 to 5 training grants this year, with direct costs limited to $150,000 for each of 3 years of planned support. Twelve NIH institutes and centers have committed about $1 million for training. Baldwin says she wants to make HESC funding "as mainstream as possible," moving it out of the realm of the unusual.
1. T. Agres, "Human embryonic stem cell registry opens," The Scientist,
15:19, Nov. 26, 2001.
2. A. Zitner, "Red Cross shifts, rejects pioneering stem cell grant," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 8, 2002, pg. 16.
Human Embryonic Stem Cell Funding Lines
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