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Scientist creates new stem cell lines

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Harvard University scientist driven by personal tragedy to find a diabetes cure has created 17 new stem cell lines that he will make freely available to researchers next year, he said Thursday.

Douglas Melton, a Harvard biology professor and the father of two children battling insulin-dependent diabetes, told The Associated Press that he developed the fresh stem cell lines for his own use and for the research community in the hope that they could help advance stem cell research.

Because stem cells can develop into any body tissue, scientists say they may hold out hope for one day being able to treat a variety of diseases from Parkinson’s to diabetes to spinal cord injuries.

Funding for the new stem cell lines, which were derived from embryos discarded from fertility clinics, was provided by the New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International and The Howard Hughes Institute, a Maryland-based nonprofit medical research organization, Melton said.

Available by early 2004

Melton said he plans to publish details about the new stem cell lines in a week or two and will make them available to researchers by early 2004.

Progress in the controversial field of stem cell research has been hampered in the United States by legislation that limits federally funded work on stem cells to a small number of cell lines that were created before April 9, 2001.

President Bush announced the restrictions in 2001, and has also called for a ban on human cloning — both reproductive cloning to make babies and the cloning of embryos solely to cull stem cells for medical research.

Because isolating stem cells for research involves the destruction of embryos, it has become a new frontier in the international debate over reproduction and the beginning of human life.

“We made them for our use and to share with the research community,” Melton said on the sidelines of Singapore’s inaugural International Stem Cell Conference, where he was an invited speaker. “I am hoping that by providing more stem cell lines without restrictions we will encourage more research in the stem cell field.”

Melton hopes stem cells can one day be coaxed into becoming insulin-producing cells that can be grafted into diabetics for a permanent cure.

Existing lines 'too few'

He says the government-approved cell lines, also known as presidential stem cell lines, are insufficient in number and he fears they may also be deteriorating in quality over time.

“The ostensibly available lines are too few,” Melton said. “And either they don’t live long enough to survive shipment or they are very expensive.”

The presidential lines come from 10 labs in the United States, Israel, South Korea, Australia and Sweden.

In Jan. 1999, Melton testified before Congress about his personal desire to find a cure for diabetes and the need for liberal stem cell policies, explaining that his son, Sam, has had type 1 diabetes since he was 6 months old.

Melton’s 16-year-old daughter was also diagnosed with the disease in 2001, according to the Web site of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. Juvenile diabetes is not the disease related to obesity.

Stem cell scientists at the conference welcomed Melton’s announcement.

“The more cell lines the better, because then you can compare them,” said Dr. Ariff Bongso, a Singapore scientist. Bongso has created stem cell lines for his own use and for the Singapore-based company he helped found, ES Cell International.

Alan Colman, a British scientist who famously helped clone Dolly the sheep in 1996, said the 17 new lines would most likely appeal to non-U.S. researchers because they could work with the stem cells without worrying about U.S. federal funding restrictions.