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Show Me The Stem Cells

The world's largest federation of scientists questioned whether there really are 60 embryonic stem cell lines available for federally funded research and challenged the Bush administration to immediately identify them.

President Bush, in an announcement last week, said that federally funded researchers could use any of more than 60 embryonic cell lines that he said existed, but the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement Friday that there is doubt about the number and origins of those cell lines.

"Many of our scientific colleagues have questioned that number, believing it to be much smaller," said the AAAS statement. It urged the Bush administration to immediately make public the sources and identities of the cell lines.

"Until leading scientists in the field can assess their quality, it is not possible to determine whether the existing collection of those lines will be sufficient" for research, the statement said.

Dr. Lana Skirboll, the NIH researcher who surprised the research community by finding 60 cell lines at the request of the White House, said that she cannot identify all of the researchers that have developed cell lines because some of the labs "are not quite ready to announce."

"We will in the not-too-distant future make sure that everybody knows exactly where the 60 lines are," she said. "We don't intend to keep this hidden forever."

Skirboll said there are five labs with stem cell lines that have not been announced publicly because of "commercial confidential and other security issues."

The statement was issued as federal health officials prepared to meet later this month with officers of a University of Wisconsin foundation. The officials will be working out the legal details to allow government-funded researchers to use cell lines developed at the university.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, controls the absolute rights to the five best-known and most widely studied embryonic stem cells, which were created by Dr. James Thomson of the university. But the foundation also holds patents that may affect all 60 of the cell lines touted by President Bush.

Officials said details of the meeting are still being sorted out, but the parties are expected to negotiate ways to satisfy any patent claims WARF has against embryonic cell lines created by laboratories outside the United States.

WARF officials said they believe that those foreign cell lines must be licensed under WARF's patent rights before they can be imported for use by American scientists.

Just how this claim will be resolved is one of the sticky issues to be negotiated with the National Institutes of Health, said Andy Cohn of WARF.

The AAAS statement said that scientists do not know the origins or genetic diversity of the stem cell lines announced by Bush in his speech last week.

"The genetic diversity of the available cell lines is an important consideration in determining their value in reserch," the statement said.

Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells can be coaxed to grow into any kind of cell in the body. It's the cells can be transformed into cells that will energize ailing hearts, treat brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease, or perhaps even cure diabetes with new insulin-producing islets.

Thomson, who developed the first human embryonic stem cell line in 1998, assigned the cell patents to WARF, a university foundation.

Patents held by WARF include not only the five cell lines (endlessly growing colonies of identical cells) developed by Thomson, but also the laboratory methods that used to produce those lines.

As a result, Cohn said, WARF believes that virtually all of the other embryonic cell lines now in existence come under the Thomson patent and cannot be imported into the United States for use by NIH researchers unless they are licensed by WARF.

Cohn said exactly how it will all be sorted out in negotiations with NIH is far from clear. "That's what this process will determine," he said.

Another complication is an agreement between WARF and Geron Corp., a Menlo Park, Calif., biotechnology company.

Geron financed much of Thomson's work, and WARF granted the firm research rights to the five cell lines and to six tissue cell types that might be derived from those cell lines.

But Cohn said that is not an issue in the NIH discussions about basic laboratory research.

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