- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002


Advances in medical research are being hindered by federal rules governing the use of embryonic stem cells, scientists told a Senate panel yesterday.

Many researchers believe these cells could hold the key to solving such diverse maladies as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries and diabetes.

However, President Bush, citing ethical concerns, restricted federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells to 78 existing cell lines.

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. But the 5-day-old embryo dies when the cells are removed, and opponents argue this is wrong.

George Daley of the Whitehead Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology said far fewer lines are available than the 78 cited by the Bush administration, "perhaps only a handful."

"The existing restrictions are keeping advances from being realized," Mr. Daley told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education.

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," Mr. Civin said.

Mr. Daley and Mr. Civin urged the NIH to establish a central facility to collect and distribute the cell lines to researchers.

Roger Pedersen of Cambridge University in England said the lack of federal support for research on human embryos has "undoubtedly" delayed the benefits of research to infertile patients and patients with degenerative diseases.

Mr. Pedersen said he worked for 30 years at the University of California, San Francisco, but moved to England because the government there encourages stem-cell research.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, who said it may be time to consider legislation to ease the research, asked Mr. Pedersen if other American scientists were likely to leave the country to continue their work.

"We are working diligently to recruit them," Mr. Pedersen said.

While Dr. Zerhouni said his agency is trying to make more cells available to researchers, he said the research is 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," he 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 said he has named a task force headed by Dr. James Battey of the National Institute on Deafness to review the 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. Federal money can be used only for the 78 eligible cell lines. The California law would allow scientists to start new cell lines for their research.

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