New Embryonic Stem Cells Made Available

By Rick Weiss and Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 4, 2004; Page A02

Harvard researchers said yesterday they had created 17 new colonies of human embryonic stem cells to be shared freely with scientists around the globe, more than doubling the world's available supply of the medically promising but ethically contentious cells.

The Harvard project, backed by private money and using embryos donated by patients at a Boston fertility clinic, marks the latest in a string of efforts to work around federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research -- a field, scientists say, that has the potential to revolutionize medicine but has evoked political opposition because it involves the destruction of embryos.

Major universities on both coasts are at various stages of establishing research centers with private and state money to bypass limits imposed by President Bush in 2001, which preclude the use of federal money for research on new colonies of stem cells.

California and New Jersey -- both of which have officially declared themselves friendly to such research -- have begun efforts to allocate millions of dollars in state funds for experiments. At least five other state legislatures, including Maryland's, are considering declarations of support. Other states have passed or are considering bills banning certain kinds of embryo research -- all part of an expanding effort to wrest the hot-button issue away from a deadlocked Washington.

It was within this fractious context that Harvard cell biologist Douglas A. Melton made a special request of Harvard, the Chevy Chase-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which have long funded his research: Given researchers' frustration with the limited number of older colonies available -- a number that today stands at 15 -- would they help finance an independent effort to produce new stem cells for scientists to experiment with?

The funders agreed, and Melton and his colleagues described the outcome in yesterday's online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Harvard team received from a local fertility clinic 344 three-day-old to five-day-old human embryos, donated for research use. The team was able to pluck stem cells from the cores of 97 of them, and 17 of those samples grew into stable, self-replenishing colonies, or lines, of stem cells.

Stem cells have the potential to turn into virtually every kind of tissue and show promise for their ability to repair or regenerate ailing organs in a variety of medical conditions -- including diabetes, which Melton's two children have.

Religious and social conservatives sharply oppose any expansion of research on embryos, and the White House said Tuesday it had no intention of loosening its policy.

Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday that beyond the morally wrong destruction of human embryos there are practical reasons to turn away from research on embryonic stem cells. He noted that some of Melton's lines have begun to show evidence of genetic abnormalities -- a problem plaguing some Bush-approved lines, too.  This is not a small problem," Doerflinger said. "This is not good for therapies."

He and other opponents of embryo research favor studies on stem cells from adults only -- research free of ethical concerns but that some believe has less medical potential.

Unlike the 15 Bush-approved cell lines, which scientists agree are difficult to grow, Melton's colonies were selected specifically for their ability to be manhandled and processed by automated means, making them more practical workhorses for scientists who want to use them to understand early human development and the underpinnings of disease.

And although the creators of the older cell lines have, with just a few exceptions, never published key details of how they were grown and how best to keep them alive, Melton produced what amounts to a detailed cookbook to help other scientists make good use of the cells -- and perhaps make more.

"I just got fed up" being limited to the approved cell lines, Melton said. "That's why I set about isolating my own lines."

Because the Harvard lines were created after Bush's cutoff of Aug. 9, 2001, researchers may not use federal money to study them. In an editorial accompanying the research, New England Journal editor Jeffrey M. Drazen and deputy editor Elizabeth G. Phimister called on Bush to make research on the lines eligible for federal funding. "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," they wrote.

In the face of the federal restrictions, funding alternatives are emerging. At the University of California at San Francisco, where a new stem cell institute backed by $11 million in private funding was recently founded, fresh embryonic stem cell lines are also being established.

Last week, Harvard announced it plans to raise as much as $100 million to start a similar institute of its own. And in San Diego, the Burnham Institute has dedicated space and accounting ledgers apart from its federally funded research to develop lines not allowed under the Bush policy.

In California, a signature drive is underway to qualify a November ballot initiative that would provide $3 billion over 10 years for stem cell research. And in New Jersey, Gov. James E. McGreevey (D) said last week that he had included in the state's proposed 2005 budget funds to establish a stem cell research institute in New Brunswick.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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