Stem Cells in Limbo

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As a political decision, the policy President Bush announced on stem-cell research just two years ago was impressively deft. Antiabortion activists had insisted that experiments on cells derived from aborted or abandoned embryos were an outrage; many researchers — and several Republican Senators — countered that because the cells have the potential to turn into virtually any cell type, from kidney to bone to brain, they could be invaluable in curing disease. So Bush split the difference: henceforth no newly harvested embryonic stem cells could be studied with federal funds. But the 70 or so stem-cell lines already in researchers' hands were fair game. "This," he said in a televised address, "allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line."

Two years later, however, many scientists are pretty cynical about that statement. For one thing, the number of usable stem-cell lines turned out to be 12, not 70. That's because the President's list included some lines that were not available for scientific use and others that are tied up by private companies — a fact the White House readily acknowledges. All 12, moreover, were cultured using mouse cells as a growth medium, raising the fear that they might carry mouse DNA or mouse viruses.

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Even if all 12 are deemed safe, says Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director for Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a biotech firm in Worcester, Mass., that's too small a gene pool to give scientists the genetic diversity they need. "It's totally inadequate. American scientists are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs," he argues.

"Totally" might be a bit strong. It could have been worse, says John Gearhart, a pioneer in stem-cell research at Johns Hopkins Medical School. "The President could have cut off funding altogether." Besides, private companies like Advanced Cell that don't need federal funding are unaffected by the ban. "The problem," says Lanza, "is that companies have to attract investments, and investors worry that the U.S. isn't very open to stem-cell research."

That's not the case overseas. The governments of Britain, Singapore, China, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Israel all provide stem-cell funding. Actor Christopher Reeve traveled to Israel last week to endorse that country's support of research that might someday regenerate cells in his damaged spinal cord.

If foreign countries are investing in stem-cell science, the research will ultimately get done. But, says Gearhart, "the U.S. is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to resources for science. If we continue to limit funding, things will proceed much more slowly." Also, foreign governments and companies can patent their stem-cell lines and charge plenty for licensing them.

For many scientists outside government, in short, the glass seems half empty at best. For scientists like Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, it's evidently half full. "Remember," he says, "that before the President made his decision, there was zero federal support for embryonic-stem-cell research." But with a potentially lifesaving technology like this one, half full may not be enough.