Harvard researchers are giving scientists free access to 17 new human embryonic stem cell lines that were developed without government money, the latest sign that U.S. scientists are forging ahead with research that the Bush administration has tried to limit.
“I think that the field needs to be stimulated and this is an excellent way of stimulating the field,” said Dr. Leonard Zon, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard’s Children’s Hospital Boston.
Dr. Zon, who was not involved in the project, said the new stem cell lines double the number available to scientists and are more user-friendly than the 15 lines eligible for federal research dollars.
Still, that is not enough, said Dr. Douglas A. Melton, whose lab at Harvard created the 17 new stem cell lines for research on diabetes and is making them available.
“There’s not an optimal number. But at the same time, it’s quite clear that the number we’ve now provided and the others that are in existence worldwide are insufficient for all of the studies and the demand,” he said.
Stem cells are the body’s building blocks and have the potential to become many different types of cells. Scientists think the stem cells can be coaxed into specific cells to repair organs or treat diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Once the stem cells are taken from days-old embryos, the cells are grown in a laboratory into lines or colonies.
Federal funding for stem cell research has been restricted since 2001 by the president, who opposes the destruction of human embryos that occurs when stem cells are extracted. Only research on stem cell lines established before Mr. Bush made his decision in August 2001 is eligible for government grants.
Some scientists complain that the 15 approved lines are expensive — as much as $5,000 each — and are difficult to obtain and use. Dr. Melton said the 17 new lines will be freely available, although scientists can’t use federal money to work with them.
“I think the best thing to do is to worry less about the policy and the politics and get down to figuring out what the  stem cell lines can actually do,” said Dr. James F. Battey, head of the National Institutes of Health’s stem cell task force. He said not enough is known about the 15 cell lines to know whether they will be sufficient.
Dr. Battey said the NIH has given an estimated $28 million over the past two years for embryonic stem cell research.
Dr. Melton’s funding came from Harvard University, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a medical research organization. Dr. Melton is an institute employee based at Harvard.
Dr. Melton and his colleagues derived the new colonies from 344 excess frozen embryos from a fertility clinic, Boston IVF, with the consent of the owners. The researchers will use the new lines to continue their work on type 1 diabetes and try to make insulin-producing pancreatic cells.
Both of Dr. Melton’s children have the disease.
“When my son was diagnosed, I did what any parent does. I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do about this?’” Dr. Melton said.
The development of the new stem cell lines by Harvard researchers was reported widely last fall when Dr. Melton discussed them at a conference. A report on the work will be in the March 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, whose editors called on the government to fund the new cell lines.