Harvard Scientists Create 17 New Stem Cell Lines, Will Allow Free Access
Harvard University scientists on Wednesday announced that they have created 17 healthy embryonic stem cell lines that could be used for research and will offer them free of charge to hundreds of scientists throughout the United States, the Boston Globe reports (Cook, Boston Globe, 3/4). In an article that was published online and will appear in the March 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Douglas Melton of Harvard and colleagues announce that they had created the stem cell lines using private funds and will make them available to other researchers, according to the Wall Street Journal (Johannes/Regalado, Wall Street Journal, 3/4). Using private funding from Harvard, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the scientists created the 17 stem cell lines from 344 three- to five-day-old human embryos donated for research use by a Boston fertility clinic (Weiss/Gillis, Washington Post, 3/4). Melton said that his team expects to provide the stem cell lines to between 100 and 200 labs in the "short term," according to the Journal (Wall Street Journal, 3/4). Melton's team also has written a "cookbook" to help other scientists use the stem cells and make more cell lines, according to the Post. In addition, the cell lines were "selected specifically" for their ability to be processed by automated means, making them more practical for use in developing treatments for degenerative illnesses, according to the Post.
Melton said that he created the stem cell lines with private money because he "just got fed up" with restrictions on stem cell research using federal funds (Washington Post, 3/4). President Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, announced a policy limiting federally funded stem cell research to embryonic stem cell lines created on or before that date. According to an unpublished NIH analysis, there are only 15 stem cell lines currently available for federally funded research under the policy. In addition, some of the 15 cell lines available have developed severe genetic abnormalities and may be useless for creating therapies and impractical for research (California Healthline, 3/3). Although the 15 cell lines available for federally funded research were initially useful to begin research, scientists have gotten "increasingly vocal in demanding more freedom to try new approaches with new starting material," according to the San Francisco Chronicle (Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, 3/4). In addition, the 15 stem cell lines currently approved for research using federal funds are "difficult to obtain and use" and cost up to $5,000 each, according to the AP/Washington Times (AP/Washington Times, 3/4). "The feeling was that we don't want our investigators limited and restricted by the number of stem cell lines currently available based on government policy," Dr. Richard Insel, executive vice president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said (Bor, Baltimore Sun, 3/4).
Dr. Ron McKay, an NIH stem cell researcher, said that the agency's 15 registered stem cell lines have "proven suitable" for research, but when the work reaches the clinical stage, new and "more appropriate" stem cell lines will be needed, according to the New York Times. "It will become obvious that there are cell lines out there that have therapeutic value and it will be morally impossible to support the case that you shouldn't be using them," McKay said (Wade, New York Times, 3/4). Dr. James Battey, head of the NIH stem cell task force, said that Harvard's new cell lines are "no better or no worse than cells on the [NIH] registry." He added that the "true limiting factor" to stem cell research is not the lack of new cell lines but the number of researchers capable of doing stem cell work, according to USA Today (Vergano, USA Today, 3/4). In an accompanying editorial, NEJM Deputy Editor Elizabeth Phimister and Editor in Chief Dr. Jeffrey Drazen write that the cell lines created at Harvard are the "first steps in a path toward substantial progress in our ability to improve the health of patients, especially those with chronic debilitating diseases," adding, "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" (Phimister/Drazen, New England Journal of Medicine, 3/25). NPR's "All Things Considered" on Wednesday reported on the Harvard scientists' announcement. The segment includes comments from stem cell researchers Melton, Larry Goldstein of the University of California-San Diego and Gordon Keller of Mount Sinai School of Medicine (Palca, "All Things Considered," NPR, 3/3). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer. The study is available online. Note: You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the study.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.