More MS news articles for Nov 2001

Bioterror fears could delay stem cell research

By Toni Clarke

NEW YORK, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Stem cell research, an issue President Bush in August described as "one of the most profound of our time," has faded from the national radar in the wake of the September 11 attacks, triggering concern that new treatments for a range of major diseases could be held back.

The shift in political attention to fighting anthrax and preparing for potential outbreaks of scourges such as smallpox, has dismayed some researchers who--while acknowledging the importance of national security issues--had been expecting lawmakers to shortly spell out, in detail, the legal scope of their work.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health made public a list of embryonic stem cell lines--or colonies--eligible for federal funding. Yet questions abound as to the usefulness of the colonies, and researchers are now skeptical that these issues will be resolved anytime soon.

"My concern is that, as the political process slows, it will negatively affect progress in the entire field," said David Greenwood, chief financial officer of Geron Corp., which is working to develop embryonic stem cell technology. Now, "days go by that turn into weeks, and weeks go by that turn into months" before key decisions are made, he said.

Stem cell researchers are hoping to coax stem cells--primitive master cells that have the potential to develop into specific cell types--to form tissue that could be used to enhance or replace damaged tissue in the body. They hope to develop treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes.


Last week Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) was forced by congressional opponents to remove a section in the labor, health and education appropriations bill that would have expanded the scope of stem cell research. In addition, hearings on stem cells and cloning scheduled for this year have been postponed until next year.

"There's not an appetite to debate these issues on the Senate floor right now," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA). "There's a general recognition that we have to deal with the crisis at hand."

Stem cell research is just one of the cutting-edge scientific research programs that could suffer as a result of the World Trade Center and US Pentagon attacks and the subsequent all-consuming government effort to root out the culprits. Some fear the demise of stem cells as a pressing issue could herald a more general slowdown in the advance of medical science.

"I recognize that we are facing new threats from weapons of disease and that we have to respond," said George Daley, a fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Medical Research and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts. "But I would be deeply concerned if that meant reorganizing priorities toward treating traditional disease at the expense of new biology."

White House budget office spokeswoman Amy Call said that so far there has been no alteration of budget allocations away from existing research programs.

"At this point, the fiscal 2002 appropriations are probably going forward as planned," she said.

In the short term, vaccine research will likely not eat into funds earmarked for existing scientific programs, in part because of a proposed $2 billion in government funding to help combat chemical and biological attacks. Longer term, the picture is less clear.


For opponents of stem cell research, delays in its progress through the political system are to be welcomed.

"We're happy that the president's policy will be left undisturbed," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. The anti-abortion group argues that the creation of stem cell lines involves the destruction of an embryo and therefore cannot be sanctioned.

While some scientists consider the shift in political attention to infectious diseases a regrettable return to a long gone era, others see it as refocusing that was long overdue.

"We've been lulled to sleep a bit by the notion that infectious diseases are things of the past," said R. Sanders Williams, Dean of Duke University School of Medicine. "The HIV story shows us that previously unknown infectious agents can arise and if we fail to be prepared for them we can suffer devastating consequences."

Certainly scientists and companies engaged in vaccine research are receiving more attention than ever. Ibis Therapeutics, a division of Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc., has been working with the Defense Department for several years to produce a vaccine that would be effective against all bacteria, said David Ecker, president of Ibis. Now their project has taken on a whole new dimension.

"The sense of urgency and intensity has increased," he said.

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, said the September 11 attacks have completely refocused the group's activities away from such issues as healthcare reform, cloning and stem cells, to national security.

"Issues that the biotech industry thought would be at the forefront of the agenda this fall were eliminated completely from the roster of items that Congress could deal with," Feldbaum said.

Instead of lobbying government, the group is now putting itself at the disposal of government.

"In giving up lobbying, certain things will get postponed and some will get postponed longer than others," he said. "National security and public health issues must come first, will come first, and have come first since September 11."

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited