Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - It's been almost a year since President Bush gave the National Institutes of Health the authority to award research grants to scientists interested in studying an existing 64 - now 72 - human embryonic stem cell lines located in 10 laboratories across the world.

And in that time, Wendy Baldwin, deputy director of extramural research at the NIH, said her office has received a flood of inquires about the controversial science, including concerns about how the money is divvied out for such research.

In a presentation last week before the President's Council on Bioethics - a committee of 18 experts appointed by Bush to oversee this research - Baldwin said that so far, the government has awarded only one grant.

To that point, Daniel Foster, a council member and chairman of the department of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, asked whether it has been determined if the 72 lines are viable. (An additional eight lines could be accepted for this research, making the total 80.)

"In a year's time we'll have a better sense of whether we have lines that even work. There's not a lot of preliminary data in this area of research - it's a new field," Baldwin said. "Science just takes time."

Since the stem cell registry has been created and posted on the NIH website, Baldwin said it has received "thousands" of hits. So clearly, there's interest in this science, she said.

Other than the first grant, Baldwin said the NIH also has initiated support for 13 administrative supplements for human embryonic stem cell research. At this point, five of those supplements have been awarded. Typically, the administrative funding is used to support research on stem cell basic biology or preclinical research translating the use of stem cells.

Also, five "infrastructure" awards have been granted to institutions in possession of the 72 lines, to help, "get things ready" for research, Baldwin said.

Aside from the research itself, Baldwin said one source of much concern over the past year has related to intellectual property rights. While the NIH doesn't get in the middle of negotiations between companies and owners of the lines, Baldwin explained that the government has entered agreements, known as memorandums of understanding, with some of the owners.

For example, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which owns five lines, and ES Cell International Pte. Ltd., of Melbourne, Australia, owner of six lines, have agreed to allow the NIH and its contractors to study their lines without signing over intellectual property rights. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 6, 2001, and April 15, 2002.)

Grant Awarded On Cell Lines From Aborted Fetuses

The NIH confirmed last week that it had in fact awarded John Gearhart, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who co-discovered stem cells, a $150,000 grant to study stem cell lines collected from aborted fetuses for potential diabetes treatments.

Stem cell lines extracted from fetuses fall under a different set of guidelines than those taken from embryos.

When notified of the award, the White House reportedly said the approval was based on Clinton-era guidelines that made it illegal for the president to prohibit funding for such research.

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