Thursday, September 26, 2002
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID Associated Press Writer
Federal rules limiting research on embryonic stem cells are hampering efforts to find new treatments for conditions ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries, a panel of scientists complained.
"The existing restrictions are keeping advances from being realized," Dr. George Daley of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services.
President Bush, citing ethical considerations, last year limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to 78 already existing lines of cells.
But Daley said Wednesday that far fewer cell lines are actually available for study, "perhaps only a handful."
Gaining access to those limited cell lines has been inordinately difficult, several researchers complained, citing costs, problems negotiating agreements with the cells' owners and restrictions imposed by governments of foreign countries, where many of the cells are located.
Responding to the complaints, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, said his agency is "diligently working with as many sources as we can to make more cell lines available."
Stem cells form very early in an embryo's development and later differentiate into numerous types of cells to form various organs and other parts of the body. Researchers hope to use these cells to repair damaged organs and cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Opponents of such research say it is unethical because the 5-day-old embryo dies when the cells are removed.
Research is also under way on stem cells found in adults, but in recent studies at Stanford University adult blood stem cells were unable to transform into other types of tissue cells, raising doubts about their value.
Dr. Curt Civin of Johns Hopkins University told of months of negotiations with the owners of cell lines in India, only to have the Indian government step in and ban export of the cells.
"More than a year after the decision (to allow research) I have yet to receive my first cell line," Civin said.
Daley and Civin urged the NIH to establish a central facility to collect and distribute the cell lines.
Roger Pedersen of Cambridge University in England said the lack of federal support for research on human embryos has delayed the benefits of research to infertile patients and patients with degenerative diseases.
Pedersen noted that he worked for 30 years at the University of California, San Francisco, but moved to England because its government encourages stem cell research.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who said it may be time to consider legislation to ease the restrictions, asked Pedersen if other American scientists were likely to leave the country to continue their work.
"We are working diligently to recruit them," Pedersen replied.
While Zerhouni said his agency is trying to make more cells available to researchers, he contended the research is really in an early stage.
Research in the past year has shown that embryonic stem cells "might someday be used to treat Parkinson's disease, heart disease and type I diabetes," Zerhouni said.
"These findings are important, but I continue to emphasize that we are at a very early stage. Much more basic research needs to be done."
He said he has named a task force, headed by Dr. James Battey of the National Institute on Deafness, to review the current state of stem cell science and make recommendations for its future direction.
California State Sen. Deborah Ortiz told the panel her state has enacted
a law that overrides the federal rules and provides state support for new
embryonic stem cell lines. The California law would allow scientists to
start new cell lines for their research.
Copyright 2002 Associated Press