WASHINGTON — The government plans to open a “national bank” to better grow the only embryonic stem cells eligible for government-funded research, holding firm against critics who want Bush administration restrictions on the controversial cells lifted.
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In addition, the National Institutes of Health plans to spend $18 million over four years to establish three “centers of excellence” to speed research on the currently available cell lines.
“The president’s embryonic stem cell policy holds tremendous and yet-untapped potential,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson wrote in a letter to be sent to members of Congress on Wednesday. “Before anyone can argue that the stem cell policy should be broadened, we must first exhaust the potential” of currently available lines.
The proposals don’t satisfy critics who say Bush’s policy is stifling groundbreaking research, particularly by limiting to just a few the number of cell lines available to study.
“It’s window dressing,” said Keith Yamamoto, executive vice medical dean at the University of California, San Francisco, a leading center of stem cell research. “The call for more cell lines is not simply that scientists want more of the same. ... The fundamental questions we need to ask come partly from what we learn by deriving them.”
“This important research field has a cloud over its head,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. “Regrettably, today’s announcement doesn’t appear to make that future any more certain.”
Behind the controversy
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that form during the early days after conception and can turn into any tissue in the body. Many scientists hope to one day harness them to grow replacement tissue to treat diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other diseases.
But because culling stem cells kills the embryo, which many religious groups oppose, President Bush has ordered the NIH not to fund any research on such cells harvested after Aug. 9, 2001.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan has called for the restrictions to be lifted, and 58 senators from both parties earlier this month asked the president to, also.
In response, HHS’ Thompson argues that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research didn’t exist before 2001 and now has reached $24.8 million — and says the new proposals should further accelerate it:
- The National Embryonic Stem Cell Bank would get samples from today’s 19 approved sources — companies or others who created them — and grow them under specially controlled conditions. That’s important because today’s hodgepodge of growing conditions can affect research outcomes, said NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. One central source also will lower the cost, from the $5,000 per shipment some researchers pay today to several hundred dollars, he said.
- The “centers of excellence” would pair basic biologist who are today’s prime stem cell researchers with physicians to accelerate research into useful therapies, Zerhouni said.
Universities including UCSF and Harvard already are doing this so-called translational research using their own money, Yamamoto noted.
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