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Stem cell work `a mess'

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    Stem cell work `a mess'

    Aug. 12, 2002. 01:00 AM

    Stem cell work `a mess'
    Fund shortage, disputes bedevil crucial research
    By Paul Elias

    SAN FRANCISCO - A year after U.S. George W. President Bush restricted federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to a select number of existing cell lines, leading scientists say the field is hampered by political, financial and scientific chaos.

    An overwhelming majority of the stem cells the Bush administration approved are in poor condition and useless for research, they complain.

    What's more, a lack of funds, a charged political climate and intellectual property disputes are slowing progress in a field scientists believe is vital to more effectively treating - and even curing - a wide range of diseases.

    "It really is a mess," said Stanford University Medical School professor Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate and one of the first high-profile critics of the administration's policy. "There are so many things that have to happen to make this work.''

    Chief among the complaints is the relative lack of money devoted to such research - most of it coming from small, private foundations backed by ailing actors - the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research - along with the Juvenile Diabetes Research

    Those three foundations have committed a combined $6 million (U.S.) to human embryonic stem cell researchers, compared with just $3.5 million by the National Institutes of Health.

    The NIH said it can't be blamed entirely for the funding drought. Only in November was it ready to dole out stem cell grants and researchers themselves have been slow to apply, said Wendy Baldwin, who helps manage the NIH's stem cell program.

    "We are here and ready to fund," she said.

    Even large foundations such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society have shied away from this political hot potato and are explicitly declining to fund it.

    Dr. Robert Bonow, president of the Heart Association, said debate continues inside the organization among doctors, researchers and patients. Bonow said the possibility of losing donors opposed to such research is a concern. "It is a controversial area. It certainly is an issue.''

    Scientists hope to some day manipulate stem cells to grow into all kinds of adult cells. But many anti-abortion activists equate the science with murder because 5-day-old embryos must be destroyed to harvest embryonic stem cells.

    Pressure from political conservatives preceded the decision Bush announced last Aug. 9 that the government would only fund research of existing stem cell lines.

    A new private funding source that could more than double available stem cell research money emerged in a $5 million challenge grant announced Thursday by Intel Corp. chairman Andy Grove. He's giving up to $5 million to the University of California, San Francisco.

    But researchers have long argued that federal support is necessary to nurture nascent fields into useful science. Companies are reluctant to invest in such research because the payoffs are far from guaranteed - and years off.

    "Very few breakthroughs have come from the business sector,'' Berg said. "They come from the academic community, which relies on federal funds.''

    Indeed, the one U.S. company heavily invested in stem cells - Geron Corp. - is struggling. In June, the Menlo Park-based company laid off 43 employees, 30 per cent of its workforce, and its stock is trading around $4 a share, near its 52-week low.

    I agree with Paul Berg. It is a mess. The pity is that it was so unnecessary. We have just lost about 5 years debating rather than developing the potential of stem cell therapy. For those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, it has been a very effective strategy. Wise.