By Kim Coghill
WASHINGTON ¿ President George Bush is expected within the next month or so to make a decision on whether the federal government should fund research on stem cells derived from embryos slated for disposal at fertility clinics.
Meanwhile, over at the Capitol, members of Congress are taking the opportunity to introduce legislation either banning or supporting funding of the controversial embryonic stem cell research that is often referred to by scientists as the key to developing revolutionary therapies for Alzheimer¿s, Parkinson¿s, diabetes and other diseases.
Late last week, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) introduced a bill, ¿The Responsible Stem Cell Research Act of 2001,¿ which would preserve existing language in federal law that prohibits taxpayer funding for experimentation that involves embryos.
On the other side of the aisle, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) has a bill that would allow federal dollars to pay for the actual derivation of embryonic stem cells, and to study the cells. Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in April introduced similar legislation.
The controversy surrounds the National Institutes of Health stem cell guidelines supported and approved last September by then-President Bill Clinton. The rules allow the federal government to pay for research on embryonic stem cells, but prohibit funding projects that collect those stem cells. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 24, 2000.)
Last fall, Bush, the presidential candidate, was pressured by pro-lifers to oppose research on such cells.
But without a decision to overturn the law, the NIH forged ahead and in mid-March accepted applications for research grants, including two to study embryonic stem cells. According to the NIH, a decision on the applications likely will come sometime later this month following word from the White House.
Scientists, as well as some on Capitol Hill, fear Bush will limit stem cell research to spontaneous abortions and adult stem cells.
In a prepared statement, McDermott said, ¿Limiting research to these two sources will shut the doors on the most promising field in medical research. First, tissue from spontaneous abortions is seldom usable due to the genetic abnormalities that caused the miscarriage in the first place. Second, it is the prevailing expert scientific opinion that we do not know if adult stem cells have the same potential as embryonic stem cells. As embryonic stem cells are developmentally earlier than adult and fetal stem cells, they have the greatest potential to become different body cells. Therefore, their promise to save lives is unlimited.¿
The Specter-Harkin legislation supports federally funded researchers to derive their own stem cells from embryos slated to be thrown out by in vitro fertilization clinics.
Smith¿s legislation requests $30 million for what he considers ¿ethical stem cell research,¿ consisting of cells from adults, umbilical cords or placenta blood from live births. The bill would establish a stem cell bank at the NIH that would collect blood from both the umbilical cord and placenta that could be matched with those who need stem cells for medical treatments.
StemCells Gets Lift From Patents
While Congress and the administration are battling it out over research, scientists on the other side of the country in California are making progress in their quest to wipe out disease via stem cells.
On Thursday, StemCells Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., saw its stock jump 65 percent after the company said it received two U.S. patents.
StemCells, formerly known as CytoTherapeutics Inc., identifies and isolates stem cells from tissues including the brain, liver and pancreas.
Its stock (NASDAQ:STEM) closed Thursday at $5.41, up from $2.13. Friday it closed at $5.03, down 38 cents. In the last year it has traded between $1.469 and $11.672.
The first patent covers a method of separating neural stem cells for growth in culture, allowing scientists to expand and harvest a greater number of viable cells than previously possible. The company said it should help it develop a more efficient manufacturing process for human neural stem cells and to scale up production of cells as it continues preclinical research and development.
The other patent, invented by Nora Sarvetnick and collaborators at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., covers a murine model useful for identifying stem/progenitor cells for the pancreas and liver, a statement released by the company said. The technology may provide a stepping stone to the discovery of the stem cell capable of regenerating the pancreas or liver.
StemCells owns or has exclusive licenses to 25 issued U.S. patents in the neural cell field as well as 15 U.S. applications and pending foreign counterparts.