May 2011

Culturing controversy

Strict regulations on stem cell research in the U.S. resulted in many scientists moving their labs abroad.

The development and propagation of human stem cell lines was hailed as the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year by Science magazine in 1999.

Madison, Wis., 1998: After months of waiting, watching and testing, James A. Thomson was finally ready to announce to the world that his laboratory had performed the first successful isolation and culture of human embryonic stem cells (1).

The cells were a veritable cellular fountain of youth: They were immortal and able to divide nearly without limit, but they also had the valuable property of being able to differentiate, under the proper conditions, into more specialized cell types. The possibilities seemed endless: a deeper understanding of developmental biology, lab-grown tissues for transplantation, even a cure for cancer.

Fanfare and furor

The development and propagation of human stem cell lines was hailed as the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year by Science magazine in 1999 (2). “We salute this work, which raises hopes of dazzling medical applications,” read the write-up. The alluring sparkle of human stem cells drew scientists in, and the number of publications on stem cells increased markedly. But along with the enthusiasm came a measure of doubt. The cells were derived from germ cells, from embryos, from potential living, breathing human beings. Was it ethical for scientists to do experiments on embryonic stem cells, or were they getting a little too close to playing God?

No one was more aware of these questions than Thomson. Several years earlier, he had consulted with bioethicists at the University of Wisconsin about the implications of his research. In a 2007 interview with The New York Times (3), Thomson spoke about his uneasiness regarding the use of human embryos in his work. “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he commented. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”

Thomson’s discomfort was shared by scientists, the public and politicians alike. An appropriations bill passed by Congress in Oct. 1998 declared that federal funds could not be used for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death,” allowing the funding of research utilizing a human embryonic stem cell line but not the creation of new stem cell lines (4). Restrictions tightened even further in 2001, when President George W. Bush announced that federal funds would be made available only for research on existing embryonic stem cell cultures, limiting National Institutes of Health-funded labs to the use of eighteen lines.

Follow the money

Thomson himself had been very careful to perform work related to the establishment of the embryonic stem cell line in a separate lab that was privately funded by Geron Corporation rather than relying on the NIH for financial support (4). But the hassle of finding alternate sources of funding and the mess of keeping separate laboratories and accounts was too much for some stem cell researchers. At the same time, other countries were investing in biotechnology and using financial incentives and less stringent research regulations to entice American stem cell scientists to move overseas.

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