Thursday, January 2, 2003

BETHESDA, Md., Jan. 2 (UPI) — The federal government’s decision to dole out more than $1 million to pay for five studies of adult stem cells is more evidence President Bush’s policy hinders the more controversial embryonic stem cell research, several scientists told United Press International Thursday.

“If they spent the same amount of money on embryonic stem cells, we’d be on the verge of clinical trials right now,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., which is developing embryonic stem cells as treatments for various diseases.

The National Institutes of Health, however, maintains it fully supports both embryonic and adult stem cell research, James Battey, chair of the agency’s stem cell task force and director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, told UPI.

Although embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any cell type in the body, and thus treat various diseases ranging from Parkinson’s to diabetes, they are controversial because harvesting them requires the destruction of an embryo.

Those who object to the use of embryonic stem cells have pushed for a shift to adult stem cells, which can be obtained from adults without harming the person. Many scientists feel, however, these cells do not have as great a potential to become a tissue type other than that from which they are taken, making them less viable as potential treatments for disease.

The National Institutes of Health said Thursday it was granting $1.4 million to five studies looking at the use of adult stem cells to repair bone and muscle damaged by disease.

Lanza charged Bush’s policy on embryonic stem cells — which significantly limited the number of cell lines that could be used for federally funded research to those already in existence — was driving the NIH decision to fund the adult stem cell projects.

“The head of the NIH (Elias Zerhouni) was selected by the Bush administration … and it’s hard to divorce politics from decision making,” he said.

He also noted the NIH’s position may have been influenced by the fact Congress — which determines the funding for NIH — is now controlled by Republicans, most of whom oppose embryonic stem cell research.

“The NIH is not going to want to alienate the people that pay their bills,” he said.

Adult stem cells should be funded but embryonic stem cells should get equal support, Lanza said, but that does not appear to be the case.

Scientists testified before Congress last year they were unable to obtain but two lines of the supposedly 78 embryonic stem cell lines Bush approved for federally funded research in 2001.

“Not only can you not get embryonic stem cells, there’s no money even if you can,” Lanza said. “Without grants, there’s no research. There’s a little bit of money dribbling in from private sources, but that’s simply not enough to fund an area of research that could revolutionize medicine.”

Battey differs.

“The NIH needs to continue to support work on all types of stem cells both adult and embryonic … if we’re going to fully capitalize on the opportunity that stem cells provide,” Battey said. “There are no limitations on the funds available for this research.”

There are few researchers deciding to work with embryonic stem cells and that limits the progress of this line of research, he said.

The American Society for Cell Biology, in Bethesda, Md., which has more than 10,000 members, said it is Bush’s policy — and not the NIH — standing in the way of embryonic stem cell funding.

“The NIH is doing as good a job as they can to implement a very difficult policy,” society spokesman Kevin Wilson said.

Wilson added the real problem is the environment created by the Bush administration, which “has said people who do this work are evil and immoral. That kind of rhetoric is not conducive to getting people involved in this research.”

Wilson said “nobody that does embryonic research is applying for grants” because scientists do not feel comfortable working with these cells due to the political turmoil surrounding them.

Asked if the controversial nature of embryonic stem cells may be deterring some scientists from entering the field, Battey said, “It may be, but I don’t think it should be. We are really enthusiastic about moving this research agenda forward.”

Another factor is getting preliminary data to prove a project is feasible, Curt Civin, an embryonic stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told UPI. That is easier with adult stem cells because researchers can more readily obtain these cells and do the initial studies required to apply for an NIH grant, he noted.

Until embryonic stem cell researchers show their project has a good chance of succeeding, there is no reason for the NIH to fund it, he said. But Civin expects in the next two years, scientists working with embryonic cells will have finished those preliminary studies and will start applying for NIH grants.

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