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US funds Swedish stem cell work

Some criticize move by Dept of Defense to award $240,000 to Lund University researchers

March 30, 2004
Maria Anderson
The Scientist

Despite the contentious issues surrounding embryonic stem (ES) cell research in the United States, the US Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded $240,000 to a research group at Lund University, in Sweden, to study the therapeutic use of human embryonic stem cells in rats.

“We are studying if the ES cells can differentiate into dopamine neurons,” said Patrik Brundin, professor and leader of the neuronal survival research group at Lund University, “and if such dopamine neurons can survive grafting to the brains of Parkinson rats, and actually function too.”

Brundin said that the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research encouraged him to apply for the DoD grant program. “My understanding is that the DoD wants to develop therapies against brain damage that can occur in response to toxins,” Brundin told The Scientist in an E-mail. “Parkinson's disease can be viewed as a model disease in this respect.”

Joyce Oberdorf, a spokesperson for the Fox Foundation, told The Scientist that Brundin's project was one of seven forwarded by the foundation that the DoD chose to fund. “We endeavor to fund the most compelling research ourselves. But sometimes, limited funds mean that worthy projects might go unfunded,” said Oberdorf. “In these cases, we opportunistically look for other sources of funding.” Since the US Army Research Laboratory's Neurotoxin Exposure Treatment Research Program (NETRP) funds research on restorative treatments, she added, “this particular project was a natural fit.”

The NETRP is currently funding 80 projects. “DoD funds scientifically meritorious and programmatically relevant research by overseas investigators when they respond to our research solicitations,” DoD spokesperson Sandra Burr told The Scientist. “We have funded the best of the best to include scientists from other countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Sweden.”

Despite earlier reports to the contrary, Brundin told The Scientist that his group has not created new stem cell lines for its study. “The cell lines we use are among the Bush-approved cell lines,” Brundin said. “We do not intend to develop new cell lines.”

But federal funding of overseas stem cell research has raised a few eyebrows. In a letter to President Bush urging him to reconsider his position on federal funding for stem cell research, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey chided Bush for permitting the Pentagon's funding of the Swedish research group: “Citizens of this great nation deserve for American scientists to have the same access to government funding as their European counterparts.”

Many US scientists, however, are glad that stem cell research is going on somewhere. “It appears that the funding is limited to research on cell lines that fit President Bush's compromise of August 2001,” said James Thomson, anatomy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School, who isolated human embryonic stem cells from blastocysts in 1998. “If this is the case, I believe that it is entirely appropriate and that [Brundin's group] should be commended, and not criticized, for attempting to advance the research even in the current fairly restrictive atmosphere.”

Tom Doetschman, a University of Cincinnati biochemist, agreed: “I think it is good that the DoD is supporting such important research. If it can't be done in this country, then it should certainly be done elsewhere.”

Some US scientists are still moving forward with stem cell research: A University of Minnesota team is currently awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval to start clinical trials of stem cells in humans. While one part of the study would use adult stem cells, another component would use embryonic stem cells from approved cell lines.

Others simply aren't satisfied with the existing cell lines. Earlier this month, Douglas Melton, a Harvard University molecular and cellular biologist, reported that his research group has created 17 new embryonic stem cell lines without any support from federal funding. Instead, his work was funded privately over the past 2 years—by Harvard, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. These cell lines are now available to anyone who wants to use them, as long as their work is not federally funded.

Copyright © 2004, The Scientist Inc.