updated 10/1/2005 1:43:02 AM ET 2005-10-01T05:43:02

The University of Wisconsin will become the nation's first hub for federal research involving human embryonic stem cells, Gov. Jim Doyle's office said Friday.

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The National Institutes of Health picked the school as the site for the National Stem Cell Bank, according to a statement from Doyle's office.

The bank will acquire, store, characterize and distribute to researchers the 22 lines eligible for federal funding under the Bush administration's policy, the statement said.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the nonprofit research arm of UW-Madison, already manages five of the lines developed at the school. The rest of the lines are currently spread out at labs in Georgia, California, Australia, Sweden, Korea and Israel, according to NIH.

NIH announced the plan to consolidate the lines into one place last year, shortly after the United Kingdom opened the world's first national stem cell bank.

NIH has said its bank would reduce the cost researchers pay for stem cells and allow for uniform quality control. Researchers who oversee the bank also will determine what cells are best suited for specific projects.

NIH solicited offers for a contract to establish the bank in December. The proposal said the bank will facilitate new studies with the lines, "leading to advances in basic knowledge and enhanced opportunities" in stem cell research.

NIH officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon. Doyle's office declined further comment on Friday's announcement. Andy Cohn, a spokesman for the research foundation, also refused comment.

Forefront of the field
UW-Madison has been at the forefront of the field since 1998, when researcher Jamie Thomson became the first scientist to isolate embryonic stem cells. He is scheduled to join Doyle at a news conference on Monday to make a formal announcement about the bank.

Having a central clearinghouse for stem cell lines "frees up the scientists to do the science and get out of the business of being suppliers," UW-Madison bioethicist Alta Charo said, noting scientists who make breakthroughs are sometimes deluged with requests for their supplies from other researchers.

"Everybody has understood that banking is crucial to moving the field forward," Charo said. "This is a concrete step, and we're doing it first."

But Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, called Friday's announcement "sad news."

"I think that the embryonic stem cell bank will further Wisconsin's reputation as a place where unethical research is welcome," she said.

Promise and controversy
Stem cells are created in the first days after conception and go on to form the body's tissues and cells. Researchers hope to use stem cells as replacements for diseased and injured body parts. But some people oppose the research because days-old embryos — usually donated by fertility clinics — are destroyed.

President Bush in 2001 limited federal grant funding to projects involving lines of embryonic stem cells that already were in existence, saying taxpayer dollars should not fund the destruction of human embryos.

The bank solidifies Wisconsin's status as a leader in the research at a time other states are intensely competing in the fledgling field, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

"It's a recognition that we already have here some of the highest quality stem cell lines in the nation, if not the world," Still said. "It also speaks to the fact that we have in place an infrastructure for developing those lines in a highly ethical way and in a highly efficient way."

The announcement comes two days after the Legislature sent Doyle a bill that would ban cloning of embryos for research purposes. Doyle, a Democrat, has promised to veto the measure. He and other stem cell research advocates said the bill would scare scientists and biotechnology companies away from Wisconsin by outlawing a promising technique.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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