Harvard scientists to share newly created stem-cell lines

Study avoids U.S. limits by using private funds

March 04, 2004|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Sidestepping federal funding restrictions on stem-cell research, Harvard scientists announced yesterday that they have created 17 new stem-cell lines with private money and would share them free of charge with other researchers.

The development more than doubles the number of stem-cell lines available for research in the United States into treatments for a variety of ailments ranging from diabetes to heart disease.

Dr. Douglas Melton, a Harvard diabetes researcher, said he developed the stem-cell lines from surplus embryos donated by couples who had completed treatment at a Boston fertility laboratory. He said he decided two years ago to create the lines after discovering that many of the cell lines approved for federally funded research were difficult or impossible to obtain.

"I tend to be a very impatient person, so I decided to just get on with this on my own," said Melton. Some scientists said their cells were not available for shipping, charged exorbitant prices or imposed limitations on the type of research that could be done on them.

The Harvard group will provide vials of frozen cells free except for shipping, Melton said. A report on the cell lines is to appear in the May 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, though the journal decided to publish it on its Web site yesterday.

Limitations

Embryonic stem cells are the master cells that morph into every specialized tissue in the human body. A stem-cell line is an expanding colony of cells developed under controlled conditions from a single fertilized egg.

Since 1998, scientists around the world have been searching for ways to shepherd the cells into specific types wanted for therapies. These include muscle cells for heart disease, and particular types of brain cells for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's diseases.

In August 2001, President Bush said he would make federal funds available to scientists who want to conduct research on cell lines that already exist in labs. The president said he was striking a balance between his ethical concerns over the destruction of embryos for research and the promise of stem-cell science.

At the time, Bush said more than 70 stem-cell lines were available, but scientists soon discovered that many were not viable or were locked up by commercial restrictions.

This week, the National Institutes of Health said 15 stem-cell lines were available and predicted that the total number would be 23 in a "best-case scenario." Many of the stem-cell lines had failed to reproduce, while others are simply unavailable to researchers.

The Bush administration's policy does not bar scientists from developing and sharing stem-cell lines with private money. Anyone wishing to conduct research on them must do so with private funds and take pains not to use equipment or tap salaries paid with federal money.

Funding for the new stem-cell lines came from the Howard Hughes Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Harvard University.

"The feeling was that we don't want our investigators limited and restricted by the number of stem-cell lines currently available based on government policy," said Dr. Richard Insel, executive vice president for the diabetes foundation.

Melton said he veered into diabetes research after learning that his two children suffered from type-1 or juvenile diabetes, caused by a deficiency of insulin-producing pancreas cells known as islets. The ailment can lead to kidney failure, blindness, amputations and other ills.

`Too much suffering'

An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine calls for the federal government to make the 17 new lines part of the NIH registry, which would make research on them eligible for federal funds.

"There is too much suffering that may be remediable through the therapeutic application of this new approach to place the new cell lines off limits to many North American scientists," wrote Elizabeth G. Phimister, deputy editor, and Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor of the journal.

Yesterday's announcement occurred three weeks after South Korean scientists announced that they had for the first time cloned a human embryo and grown stem cells from it. Cloned embryos are made by inserting a person's DNA into an egg emptied of its genetic material, then allowing that egg to grow as if it had been fertilized.

Cloned embryos are prized because, in theory, cells derived from them could be injected into a person who donated the DNA without triggering the body's natural impulse to reject foreign material.

Many scientists, however, doubt that such cells could be grown quickly or cheaply enough to rescue dying patients.

James Battey, chairman of an NIH task force on stem-cell research, said yesterday he is not worried by the creation of new cell lines with private money.

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