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US Scientists Complain of Stem Cell Slowdown

Sept 25, 2002
By Julie Rovner
Reuters Health

President Bush's policy limiting funding for research on human embryonic stem cells is slowing medical progress and driving researchers out of the country, scientists told a US Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Under the current policy, only research on cells from lines in existence as of August 2001 is eligible for federal funds. The rule "has delayed the benefits of research to patients with degenerative diseases," said Dr. Roger Pederson, a stem cell researcher who left the University of California-San Francisco last year to move to the University of Cambridge in England to pursue his research.

"More than a year after the president's announcement, I am still waiting to receive my first stem cell line," Dr. Curt Civin of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "In fact, embryonic stem cell research is crawling like a caterpillar," he said.

Over the past year, agreed Dr. George Daley of Harvard Medical School in Boston, "the progress on my own team has been palpably slowed" by difficulties obtaining cells.

US National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni conceded that progress in making cells available has been slower than he would like, but said that "there's an increasing number of lines" now available to scientists, and NIH "is diligently working to make more lines available."

But that was not good enough for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who chaired the hearing. Specter said he would immediately introduce legislation to expand the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding. "We have to open it up," he said after the hearing. "You heard some very powerful testimony that science is being impeded."

Specter and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) also expressed concerns that more scientists would follow Dr. Pederson's lead and move to other countries if they can not get the cells they need to do their work. Dr. Pederson said he was not sure how many others might move, but added, "we're working as diligently as possible to recruit them."

Still, Specter admitted that his legislation is unlikely to be approved before Congress adjourns for the year. During the hearing, he even said that the bipartisan effort to complete the doubling of the NIH budget is in danger, given the current impasse over annual spending bills. "Nothing's going to happen this year on anything," he said.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd