University To Launch Stem Cell Center

Multimillion-dollar initiative aims to put Harvard at head of embryonic research

Harvard will establish a multimillion-dollar center for the study of human embryonic stem cells in a broad push to strengthen the University’s research in the field, scientists said yesterday.

Provost Steven E. Hyman confirmed plans were in progress for the Harvard Stem Cell Center, which would bring together researchers from the University and affiliated hospitals who are already exploring the promising cells’ potential to help cure diseases like AIDS and diabetes.

“We are moving forward on a stem cell center,” Hyman said. “It’s something Harvard ought to be doing. It is something we can be preeminent in.”

The revelation, first reported yesterday in The Boston Globe, comes two weeks after a South Korean laboratory became the first to extract a line of stem cells from a cloned human embryo, disappointing Harvard researchers who had been pursuing the achievement.

A report circulated by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) William C. Kirby in January included a proposal to establish a stem cell research program on the University’s lands in Allston.

“Not only does the Institute propose to bridge the gap from basic to applied life science, it also proposes to address the complex social, ethical and religious questions that have arisen as stem cell research has advanced,” read the report obtained by The Crimson.

Human embryonic stem cells, which can harness the potency of fertilized eggs to form any variety of human tissue, have emerged as a pivotal—and controversial—field of study.

Bush administration restrictions limit government-financed research to pre-existing stem cells, but Hyman said the University would seek funding for the center from private donors and foundations.

The January report said 20 faculty would be required for the effort, including five new recruitments. Hyman would not confirm those numbers yesterday but said additional hirings were a possibility.

According to the report, the research program would link the work of scientists currently working on stem cells at FAS, Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard hospitals.

The report says that the center will focus initially on four “disease areas”: blood diseases including AIDS, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and cardiovascular diseases.

The center will initially exist without a home, said Associate Professor of Medicine David T. Scadden, who will co-direct the program, but a physical presence is on the agenda.

“Ultimately, we do think it would be best if we did have a physical space where there was a core group of researchers that were working together,” Scadden said.

According to the report, the proposed stem cell center would include new lab facilities for researchers and an “administrative infrastructure to support the work.”

After the breakthrough in South Korea last month, Scadden said Harvard needed to redouble its efforts in stem cell research.

“It’s a terrible disappointment that we’re reading about it from other countries,” Scadden said in early February. “It’s imperative that we be able to use this technology in the U.S.”

But Scadden said yesterday that plans for the center have been forming for more than a year and were not in response to the developments in South Korea.

Harvard scientists have seen their share of breakthroughs on stem cell research in recent years.

Most recently, Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton announced last November he had created 17 new stem cell lines for research.

But under federal regulations, those stem cells can only be studied with private funds, like those which will likely finance the center.

Melton, who will be co-director of the center, declined to comment on any specifics yesterday.

The move toward a consolidated center for stem cell research is one in a number of moves University President Lawrence H. Summers has made to emphasize life sciences. Harvard and MIT joined last summer to announce the creation of the Broad Institute, which will devote at least $300 million to the study of the human genome.

Hyman would not say how much money the University would seek from outside donors for the stem cell program but said the amount would be “substantial.”

That fundraising effort, which Scadden said will officially begin this week, will likely coincide with a University capital campaign and several other individual programs.

Scadden said the center would include research in adult and animal stem cells, as well more controversial human embryonic stem cells.

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.