updated 5/19/2004 3:20:50 PM ET 2004-05-19T19:20:50

More than 500 scientists gathered in Singapore Tuesday to discuss stem cells and how to harness them to change the lives of diabetics, quadriplegics, Parkinson’s patients and those suffering from other medical conditions.

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Organizers were hoping to use the three-day event as a chance to showcase the tiny island’s budding biomedical sector.

With strong governmental support, Singapore has become a center for research into human embryonic stem cells — master cells that can grow into almost any tissue in the body. Scientists hope to use them one day to replace unhealthy cells as a cure for a variety of diseases.

“Most of the big names are here,” said Dr. Ariff Bongso, a Singapore scientist who became the first to grow human stem cells without using animal cells in June 2002.

Previously, scientists would grow stem cells by taking a small amount of human stem cells and combining them with a larger amount of animal tissue, which acts as a soil to nurture the stem cells. However, there were concerns that cells grown this way could infect humans with animal viruses.

Bongso pioneered a method of growing human stem cells using human tissue as a feeder instead of animal tissue.

“There are people who discover things and people who colonize things,” said Dr. Ron McKay of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “In the embryonic stem cell field, (Bongso) is a discoverer.”

Government to unveil ‘biopolis’
Much of the emphasis on the conference’s first day was on attracting more talent and investment to Singapore. Recruiting people away from the biomedical research centers of the United States and Europe has posed a challenge for the island.

On Wednesday, the government will unveil its resort-like Biopolis, created to give biotech researchers and their families a place to live and work.

“The whole purpose of this meeting is to show them our Biopolis,” Bongso said.

Stem cells are created in the first days of pregnancy and develop into the human body. The field is controversial because days-old embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells, drawing opposition from some anti-abortion activists.

Because of the ethical concerns, President Bush restricted federal funding two years ago to those cell lines that already were being used for research.

Singapore, in contrast, has some of the world’s most liberal guidelines for stem cell research, which allow scientists to clone human embryos and keep them alive for up to 14 days to extract the stem cells.

The research-friendly policies and generous government funding have already helped jump-start the tiny city-state’s nascent stem cell sector.

Ahead of the conference, Singapore and the New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International launched a $3 million funding program to support stem cell research here.

Last year, Alan Colman, a British scientist who helped clone Dolly the Sheep in 1996, moved here to head research into using stem cells to cure diabetes.

Among the speakers at the conference are Harvard University stem cell scientist Douglas Melton and Dr. Irving Weissman, head of the stem cell research program Stanford University, a statement from the organizers said.

Also attending are Nobel laureate David Biltmore of the California Institute of Technology and Catherine Verfaillie, head of the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute, it said.

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