May 2011

Culturing controversy

Singapore was one of these countries – it had developed an ambitious National Biomedical Science Strategy in 2000 (5) and built Biopolis, a gleaming new complex of buildings that served as Singapore’s biomedical research hub. Singapore also had established regulations regarding human embryonic stem cell research, permitting cloning for therapeutic – but not reproductive – purposes (6). The city-state’s appetite for science and the availability of research funding convinced Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins to leave the National Cancer Institute for Biopolis in 2006. “We will be on the ground floor of something new and exciting,” Copeland said in an article in Nature (7). Molecular cardiologist Judith Swain and her husband Edward Holmes, a translational scientist, made the move from the University of California, San Diego, to Singapore in 2006 as well, citing “federal hostility towards embryonic stem-cell research” as a factor in their decision (8).

Singapore’s appetite for science and the availability of research funding convinced Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins to leave the National Cancer Institute for Biopolis in 2006.

The United Kingdom scored a prominent scientist of its own: Roger Pedersen, a leading researcher in the area of the differentiation and specialization of stem cells. Pedersen resigned from his position at the University of California, San Francisco, and went to England, where he started the Cambridge Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine in 2003. The regulations governing the use of human embryonic stem cells in the UK are similar to those in Singapore, which made it easier for Pedersen to carry out his research. “Here, there is government funding,” Pedersen said of the UK, “and the funding goes where the science goes” (9).

Brain drain?

The exodus of top scientists was worrying. “American scientists have been pioneers in all major branches of medical research,” observed Senator Orrin Hatch in 2007. “If we don’t act quickly, the United States may lose the opportunity to lead the world with stem cells” (10). A 2006 study examined this so-called brain drain by analyzing the results of two surveys, one administered to stem cell scientists and the other to scientists who didn’t work on stem cells (11). The surveys asked scientists to document the number and source of job offers received in the past year, hypothesizing that if the brain drain was real, stem cell scientists would have entertained more job offers than other scientists – especially offers to move overseas. And indeed, this was the case: Researchers working on stem cells were 1.6 times more likely to receive a job offer, and 5.3 times more likely to receive an international offer, than researchers working in other fields (11).

In the meantime, states were taking matters into their own hands. In 2004, New Jersey became the first state to appropriate funds for adult and embryonic stem cell research. Later that year, voters in California approved Proposition 71, which provided $3 billion to fund stem cell research while prohibiting research on reproductive cloning. Money from the bond proceeds was distributed by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to scientists like Cynthia Kosinski, who received a grant when she was a graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco. While the federal restrictions didn’t apply to Kosinski because she worked with adult stem cells, she noted that for researchers who worked on embryonic stem cells, the CIRM funds filled holes when federal grant money couldn’t be used. “CIRM funding actually attracted some scientists to California,” says Kosinski, “which has helped to make California a hotbed of stem cell research.”

The 2006 report supports Kosinski’s observation: Of the domestic job offers received by stem cell researchers, a third originated in California, compared to 11 percent for non-stem cell scientists (11). In effect, California – as well as states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey in which legislation supporting stem cell research had been enacted – was playing the role of a local Singapore. The budgets may have been smaller, and there wasn’t a Biopolis, but scientists didn’t have to move their stem cell cultures across oceans either.

Change and change again

“Living in a state that doesn’t have state-approved [embryonic] stem cell funding can be frustrating and risky, because the policy on stem cell research can change from administration to administration,” says Kosinski. Stem cell scientists have found themselves riding a roller coaster of federal regulations with dizzying highs and sickening lows. One of the highs came in March 2009, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order revoking President Bush’s 2001 restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and increasing the number of cell lines acceptable for use in NIH-funded labs. The celebratory mood among stem cell scientists was short-lived, however: In August 2010, federal Judge Royce Lamberth banned federal funding for work involving embryonic stem cells based on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which was intended to stop the destruction of human embryos. Judge Lamberth’s ruling brought funding of research involving embryonic stem cell lines to an immediate halt. To allow the research to resume, the Department of Justice quickly filed a stay, so for now, work on embryonic cell lines continues, cautiously – with U.S. scientists watching and waiting to see what happens next.

References

1. Thomson, J. A., Itskovitz-Eldor, J., Shapiro, S. S., Waknitz, M. A., Swiergiel, J. J., Marshall, V. S., and Jones, J. M. (1988) Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts. Science 282, 1145 – 1147.
2. Vogel, G. (1999) Capturing the promise of youth. Science 286, 2238 – 2239.
3. Kolata, G. Man who helped start stem cell war may end it. The New York Times. Nov. 22, 2007.
4. Marshall, E. (1998) A versatile cell line raises scientific hopes, legal questions. Science 282, 1014 – 1015.
5. Normile, D. (2007) An Asian tiger’s bold experiment. Science 316, 38 – 41.
6. Walsh, B. Asia’s stem cell city. Time Magazine, Asia Edition. Oct. 23, 2006.
7. Wright, J. (2006) Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, principal investigators, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Singapore. Nature 439, 1028a.
8. Wright, J. (2006) Ed Holmes, executive deputy chairman, Biomedical Research Council, Singapore; and Judith Swain, executive director, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences. Nature 442,106a.
9. Rohm, W. G. The Stem Cell Refugee. Wired Magazine. December 2003.
10. Senator Dianne Feinstein press release. Senators Hatch and Feinstein promote stem cell research, human cloning ban. March 8, 2007.
11. Levine, A. D. (2006) Research policy and the mobility of U.S. stem cell scientists. Nature Biotech. 24, 865 – 866.

Leslie ChinnLeslie W. Chinn (leslie.chinn@gmail.com) is an ORISE fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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