- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

The National Institutes of Health yesterday released a list of four U.S. and six foreign laboratories that have a total of 64 human-embryo stem-cell colonies, or "lines," that might be used for government-funded research.

The announcement ended the highly publicized fretting of scientists who said there was no published evidence that the 60 embryonic stem-cell lines President Bush mentioned in a prime-time TV address actually exist. And it signaled the beginning of government involvement in controversial stem-cell experiments.

"The knowledge that these … cell lines exist and will be available for research should inspire our nation's best scientific minds," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement. "The scientific community must seize the moment."

"It's welcome news," says biochemist Kevin Ryder, a consultant to the American Cell Therapy Research Foundation. "It means scientists can now contact the labs and gain critical information about the lines."

"Now," says Larry Goldstein, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, "we can learn whether the lines are practically available and what licensing agreements are involved. We can find out if the lines behave. If the answer is yes, we can get started."

NIH reported it is creating an Embyronic Stem Cell Registry that gives details of the various cell lines. Its announcement stated, "It is our hope that federally funded investigators will take full advantage of this new opportunity to conduct research on existing human embryonic stem cells and explore the enormous promise of these unique cells."

Stem cells are minute cells harvested from human embryos that can multiply interminably and can be nurtured in the lab. The cells have the potential to grow into practically any human tissue — into cells of the brain, heart or foot, say — and eventually into entire organs.

Medical researchers anticipate using human embryonic stem cells as treatments or cures for ailments like muscle-withering Lou Gehrig's disease and diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and spinal cord injuries.

However, since obtaining the cells causes the destruction of human embryos, some argue that harvesting them is tantamount to murder. Despite popular and scientific acceptance of limited stem-cell research, foes of the experiments contend they should never be funded with government money.

On Aug. 9, Mr. Bush offered a compromise and outlined conditions under which research might proceed. Among other stipulations, he said government funding can be offered for research on stem cells obtained before Aug. 9, if the cells were unneeded products of reproductive therapy and destined for destruction. He said the embryos' donors must be fully informed of the proposed use of the cells and give their consent with no financial incentives involved.

The stem cells the National Institutes of Health identified meet those criteria and more.

Still, concerns remain.

As Mr. Goldstein explains, stem cells are grown in standard laboratory reagents "consisting of a cocktail of bovine serum, mouse feeder cells and other ingredients." Since mouse cells are involved, it's likely that the Food and Drug Administration will ban therapeutic use of the available human stem cells.

Like other researchers, Mr. Ryder says, "It's not too early to worry that this situation creates an FDA hurdle to developing stem-cell therapies."

But Mr. Goldstein isn't so sure. "We don't know yet what we have. We have to do the research. The president's plan is a serial plan. We've got to do the experiment first, then see what happens next."

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