WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Oct 31 - A National Institute of Health registry of cell lines available for embryonic stem cell research is set to go online within the next week, an agency official told lawmakers Wednesday.
But officials are still not sure exactly how many of the lines will be available for research under guidelines laid down by President George W. Bush last August.
Dr. Wendy Baldwin, the NIH's deputy director of extramural research, said that she had "a reasonable expectation" that the registry would be available on the Internet next week. The registry is supposed to offer researchers and the public a link to providers of approved stem cell lines, but was delayed by the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The president issued an order last August 9 limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to lines already derived by that date. The directive also limited funding to lines obtained with the donor's consent and without any offer of financial reward to the donors.
Administration officials at the time identified approximately 60 stem cell lines that met all of the criteria. But questions remain as to how many of the lines will meet the president's rules, said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee.
Dr. Baldwin said that the NIH would soon begin investigating Reliance, an Indian company that controls seven of the cell lines on the NIH's list. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Reliance produced an unusually large number of embryos in the months before Bush announced his stem cell decision last summer, suggesting possible ethical lapses.
"We will be making a trip to India within the next month," Dr. Baldwin told members of a Senate health subcommittee.
Specter, who supports stem cell research, also expressed concerns that consent rules in Sweden could make some stem cell lines off-limits in the US. The Swedish rules limit donor consent to 6 months and allow donors to reclaim cells derived from their embryos after the time has lapsed.
Swedish researchers have told NIH officials that they are going back to each donor to obtain re-consent, according to Dr. Baldwin.
Only three cell lines have cleared the consent process to date, she said. Still, she noted, the NIH expects to make its first grants for stem cell research in early 2002.
The testimony came as the Senate was busy considering the fiscal 2002 health spending bill, which includes a possible ban on the therapeutic cloning technology needed to make more cell lines in the future.
Dr. Bert Vogelstein, chair of an Institute of Medicine committee on stem cell research, appeared before the committee to make a pitch for allowing more cell lines. The committee released a report on September 11 warning that existing cell lines could be subject to genetic mutations if divided many times over for research.
Moreover, the cells may not prove appropriate for clinical use, assuming that basic research leads to new treatments. "These cells will have come in general from another person and they will in general be rejected by the host," Dr. Vogelstein said.
The IOM committee report recommends
the development of new cell lines in the future. "For basic research, the
existing cell lines are probably adequate. For therapy, they're probably
not," said Dr. James Thompson, a University of Wisconsin researcher who
has derived several stem cell lines.
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd