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More MS news articles for May 2003

U.S. Senators Accuse NIH of "Politicizing" Stem Cell Research

May 22, 2003
By Julie Rovner
Reuters Health

Two U.S. Senators, one Democrat and one Republican, accused the National Institutes of Health of "politicizing" the issue of embryonic stem cell research by failing to tell them about new stem cell lines in Sweden that were developed for the first time without the use of "feeder cells" from mice. The issue is significant because scientists say that human cells that have been mixed with animal cells, while suitable for research, probably cannot be used for actual treatment in human patients.

"Until Monday of this week," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services, the panel had been told by a variety of officials that all embryonic stem cell lines "were contaminated with mouse feeder cells." Finding out that was not the case "was a shock," he said.

Subcommittee ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa agreed. "We're getting contradictory information. It makes me wonder if the information we are getting is being politicized."

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, however, insisted that the subcommittee was not told of the Swedish advances partly because they did not know of them, and partly because what they do know is premature. "This is hearsay and we do not know their method is valid," said Dr. Zerhouni, because nothing has been published yet.

Dr. Zerhouni added that while the 4 to 5 stem cell lines reported in Sweden would not be eligible for U.S. research funding, because they were created after President Bush's funding cutoff of August 9, 2001, those same researchers have also frozen some 16 lines not yet developed using any feeder cells. Should the process used for the existing lines prove successful, he told the subcommittee, those lines would be eligible for federal funding.

Dr. Zerhouni also told the subcommittee that he is working hard to advance embryonic stem cell research using the 11 cell lines that are currently "widely available" to researchers, and that NIH has awarded some $17 million in grants for research in the current fiscal year.

But other researchers told the subcommittee the policy allowing funding only for cell lines derived before August 9, 2001 is hindering progress on promising avenues of research. U.S. researchers "simply will not be able to compete" with researchers in other countries with more liberal research policies "if we can't use the best techniques," said Northwestern University Neurology Department Chairman John Kessler.

Dr. Roy Ogle of the University of Virginia Medical School added: "Clearly scientists need to be able to study many more cell lines than are currently available."

© 2003 Reuters Ltd.