Scientists Push On With Stem Cell Research

Despite limits on federal funding, researchers will pursue new lines

While many in the molecular biology community held their breath this summer for President Bush’s decision on federal funding for human embryonic stem cells, Harvard researchers in the field have been quietly pushing forward.

In a move that could make the University a leader in stem cell work, a Harvard scientist is set to receive funds from a private research institute to create new stem cell lines.

Cabot Professor of Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton will lead a group at Harvard in extracting stem cells from embryos provided by Boston IVF, a local fertility clinic. The embryos would otherwise have been destroyed.

Funds for the work will be provided by the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Melton is employed by the institute in addition to holding a Harvard faculty position.

Embryonic stem cells have the capability of developing into any tissue in the body, possibly providing a source of cells to treat diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. But scientists say that it will take them years to develop such treatments because so little is known about the cells.

The first embryonic stem cell lines were reported in 1998.

The planned work has received significant attention in the national press because President Bush announced Aug. 9 that he would not allow federal funds to be used for the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines. He also forbid the use of tax money for research that involves cell lines derived after his Aug. 9 announcement.

The policy was an attempt by the administration to mollify voices on both sides of the debate. Many conservatives say that embryos are human life and it is wrong to profit from their death. Proponents of the research counter that embryos are not humans and that they would eventually be destroyed anyway.

Any cell lines produced at Harvard will have to be used in privately funded research. According to Melton, significant sources of private funding do exist for stem cell work.

“There are several possible sources of funding including the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and other similar groups,” Melton wrote in an e-mail message.

However, the government does provide a major source of funding for the University’s biomedical research. Last year, for example, Harvard Medical School received over $122 million from the government for research and training, which is over three-quarters of the total funding received for those areas.

The National Institutes of Health, which controls most government research grants, has an annual budget of over $20 billion.

Many scientists have argued that the lack of federal funds will stall work on the cells. There are 64 existing lines that can be used with federal funding, but some scientists fear they will not be enough and some of those lines may not be made available to researchers for months.

According to Jane Corlette, Harvard’s acting vice president of government, community and public affairs, the University plans to offer Harvard’s newly created cells lines to researchers with less restrictive terms than many current providers of cells.

“Our idea would be that we want to make them available with as few strings attached as possible,” she said. “We might say that any research done would have to have institutional review board approval.”

She also said that the University has created a special review board to oversee the ethics of the extraction process.

Melton wrote that he “would be surprised if others weren’t” trying to derive their own cell lines. But he said he hopes this work will put the University in a good position for future stem cell research.

—Staff writer Jonathan H. Esensten can be reached at