Post-doctoral fellow Chad Cowan holds a group of stem cells Feb. 27 in the lab of Harvard University's Dr. Douglas Melton in Cambridge, Mass. Melton and other scientists at Harvard announced they had created 17 new stem cell lines and would make them available to other researchers.
updated 3/3/2004 6:08:34 PM ET 2004-03-03T23:08:34

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 the controversial 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.

Zon, who was not involved in the project, said the new stem cell lines not only double the number available to scientists, but are more user-friendly than the 15 lines eligible for federal research dollars.

More cell lines needed, say scientists
Still, that’s not enough, said Dr. Douglas A. Melton, whose lab at Harvard created the stem cell lines for research on diabetes and is making them available beginning Wednesday.

Dr. Douglas Melton of Harvard University stands in his lab Feb. 27 in Cambridge, Mass., where he conducts stem cell research in an effort to find a cure for diabetes.
“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.

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.

That has forced some scientists to find other ways of funding their work. Only research on stem cell lines established before Bush made his decision in August 2001 can get government grants.

Melton’s funding came from Harvard University, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a medical research organization. Melton is an institute employee based at Harvard.

Stem cells are the body’s building blocks and have the potential to become many different types of cells. Scientists think the 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.

Approved lines expensive
Some scientists complain that the 15 approved lines are expensive — as much as $5,000 each — and hard to get and to use. 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 (15) 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 if they will be sufficient.

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Battey said the NIH has given an estimated $28 million over the last two years for embryonic stem cell research.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Louise Slaughter of New York, both Democrats, accused the administration of misinforming the public on how many government-approved stem cell lines were usable.

The administration had initially said there were 78 stem cell lines worldwide available to researchers, but some scientists have questioned the quality of most of those cell colonies, including the 15 now ready for use.

But according to NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, “it’s not fair” to say all those cell lines will never be available, because scientists don’t know yet if that’s the case.

Privately funded center
The development of the new stem cell lines was widely reported last fall when 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 said the new lines should be made eligible for government money.

“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 research scientists,” they wrote in an editorial.

Melton and his colleagues derived the new cell lines from 344 excess frozen embryos supplied by 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.

Melton’s 12-year-old son, Sam, and 16-year-old daughter, Emma, have the disease and Melton moved into the field after his son was diagnosed at 6 months.

“When my son was diagnosed, I did what any parent does. I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do about this?’” Melton said.

At Harvard, the stem cell lines would be used at a privately funded center the university is planning. Other universities, including Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota and the University of California at San Francisco, are also developing programs without government support.

Besides private foundations, research support may also be coming from states. New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey wants the state to spend $50 million for stem cell research, including $6.5 million for a research center. A group in California is pushing for a $3 billion bond issue for stem cell research.

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