[FoRK] Fed-free stem cells

jbone at place.org jbone at place.org
Sun Mar 7 20:51:20 PST 2004

...no doubt the anti-science zealots in D.C. will find some dubious 
"reason" to nix this, too...



Brand-New Stem Cells
A scientist beats federal limits with private money
Strands of hope: Douglas Melton is offering 17 new stem cell lines for 
scientific use
By Claudia Kalb

March 15 issue - It was more than just a scientific feat. Last week 
Harvard biologist Doug Melton announced the creation of 17 new lines of 
human embryonic stem cells, ready to ship to any scientist who wants 
them. Cost: free, except for postage. "They're very user-friendly," 
says Melton. They're also very politically symbolic. Melton, whose two 
children have juvenile diabetes—a disease he believes could potentially 
be cured by stem cells—says he tried to use government-approved cell 
lines ($5,000 per vial) for his research, but he found them difficult 
to obtain and questioned their quality. So instead, in an arrangement 
with the fertility clinic Boston IVF, he collected embryos donated by 
couples and, in his basement lab at Harvard, teased out the prized 
little blobs that scientists consider precursors of a medical 
revolution. "I tend to be an impatient person," says Melton, whose 
two-year project was privately funded by Harvard, the Juvenile Diabetes 
Research Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "I decided to 
do this on my own."

Melton's success intensifies the clash of science and politics that 
began in 2001, when President George W. Bush limited federally funded 
research to stem-cell lines that already existed. The move was intended 
to satisfy religious groups opposed to research on human embryos, and 
scientists eager to unravel the mysteries of cell biology. But last 
week the National Institutes of Health acknowledged that the number of 
official stem-cell lines available, touted to be as high as 78 by 
government officials, had dropped to 15. While Melton's new cells 
double the stockpile, researchers are barred from using federal 
money—the mainstay of scientific funding—to study them. And as any 
scientist will tell you, private dollars are hard to come by. All of 
which could well limit the impact of Melton's work. The government, 
says Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, 
School of Medicine, has "thrown a wet blanket over a field that would 
otherwise be bursting with researchers."

Spurred by frustration, parents with sick children, patient-advocacy 
groups and wealthy donors have stepped in to fuel the science. Stanford 
got $12 million for stem-cell research from an anonymous donor, Intel's 
Andy Grove gave UCSF $5 million and next month Harvard will unveil 
plans for the biggest effort yet—a stem-cell institute expected to be 
in the $100 million range. States are also taking a stand. Last month 
New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey announced the creation of the New 
Jersey Stem Cell Institute, a $50 million venture over the next five 
years. And Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, a group of 
citizens and scientists, is now gathering signatures for a November 
ballot initiative that would authorize $3 billion in public money for 
stem-cell research in the state.

Scientists hope that these developments will pressure the federal 
government into easing restrictions on research into stem cells. These 
remarkable blank slates have been coaxed into nerve, blood, heart and 
liver cells in petri dishes, but human trials are at least five years 
off, says Dr. Leonard Zon of the International Society for Stem Cell 
Research. If there were a change in federal policy, says Zon, "I 
definitely think it would happen quicker." Until then, for Melton and 
others, it's back to the basement.

With Joan Raymond
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

More information about the FoRK mailing list