It’s official: The United States has fallen far behind in mining the promising field of stem cell research to treat disease.
A team of South Korean researchers announced Thursday it had successfully harvested stem cells from a cloned embryo — a feat U.S. researchers have been trying to accomplish since at least 2001.
Meanwhile, U.S. scientists complain that a lack of money and a charged political climate have brought the field to a virtual standstill here.
Many researchers believe creating stem cells by cloning embryos in labs may eventually create therapies that won’t lead to immune rejection problems in people.
U.S. scientists hailed the announcement as a landmark occasion but also lamented that a technology largely created in the richest nation on earth was getting more support abroad.
Singapore in November unveiled “Biopolis,” a $287 million government biotech center focused on stem cell research.
Chinese researchers last year reported fusing human skin cells with rabbit eggs to produce early stage embryos, which in turn yielded stem cells. The government is also building a stem cell research center.
England, Israel and several other countries also have more advanced stem cell programs.
Those countries aren’t as politically riven by the issue as the United States.
Some Christian and politically conservative groups oppose the research — especially cloning — as immoral because fertilized embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells. Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, on Thursday called on Congress to ban all forms of cloning.
Lack of money
Chief among the U.S. scientists’ complaints is the relative lack of money devoted to such research. The federal government limits what researchers can work on with taxpayer-funded grants. The Bush administration policy also forbids federal funding of all cloning research, even if the projects are intended solely to create stem cells like the South Koreans did.
“All the money for this work has dried up,” said Dr. Robert Lanza of Worcester, Mass.-based Advanced Cell Technology, the one U.S. company that has publicly attempted to clone for stem cells, albeit unsuccessfully. “We are lucky to still be in business. Our research has suffered immensely.”
Lanza said he’s been unable to work with human embryos since October because of the high cost of obtaining eggs and the company’s desperate need for investment.
Meanwhile, Menlo Park-based Geron Corp. has laid off most of its stem cell researchers and shifted much of its effort to developing a cancer-fighting drug based on a different technology.
The private sector is far from alone in its struggles. University researchers complain that President Bush’s stance on stem cell research has hindered them and could contribute to a brain drain of talent overseas.
Bush ordered the National Institutes of Health not to fund any research on stem cells harvested from embryos after Aug. 9, 2001.
But many scientists question the quality of the available stem cells and argue that many more stem cell lines need to be developed to move the field forward.
Research at a few universities
To do that, they said more federal funds are needed. The NIH has awarded $60 million in funding for human embryonic stem cell research, said Dr. James Battey, chair of the NIH’s stem cell research committee.
Battey said a lack of applications, rather than NIH restrictions, is the reason the federal government has funded comparatively few stem cell grants.
“We would be happy to spend more,” Battey said. But he said no federal funds are available to work on cloning experiments involving human embryos.
“The administration has stated very clearly it is opposed to therapeutic cloning,” Battey said. “As part of the administration, that prohibits us from supporting that research.”
Most U.S. research today is being conducted at a few universities such as Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco that have established privately funded programs.
Small, private foundations such as the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation also support the work.
California may breathe new life into the field if an ambitious $3 billion stem cell research bond measure is passed in November.
A coalition of wealthy patient advocates, eminent scientists and Hollywood executives has launched a well-funded campaign to qualify the measure for the ballot.
The proposition would fund laboratory cloning projects intended to create stem cells for regenerative and therapeutic medicine while specifically banning cloning programs aimed at creating babies.