Research involving stem cells from the adult body is uncontroversial and unrestricted. But the versatility of adult stem cells is also the least proved. Many scientists believe that embryonic stem (ES) cells will provide more powerful treatments but that the greatest obstacle to assessing and harnessing the potential of ES cells is a lack of freedom and funding to do the work.

In the U.K., Singapore, South Korea, China, Japan and a handful of other nations, research on ES cells enjoys generous government support. The European Parliament, however, has been struggling to agree on a policy, leaving member countries to decide their own rules for now. A United Nations effort to draft a global convention has been deadlocked for two years. U.S. scientists have been laboring under a partial ban decreed three years ago by President George W. Bush. Any researcher receiving government fundingthe vast majority in both academia and industry do receive some kind of government grant moneymay work only with embryonic stem cell lines created before the policy was announced in August 2001.

The grantees can get federal support, but less than $20 million of the National Institutes of Health's $27-billion budget for 2003 actually went to fund studies using those so-called presidential cell lines.

The situation might as well be a total ban, according to many scientists. At present, only about 15 of the presidential lines are even available to researchers. Some of those are sickly and difficult to cultivate; others have started displaying genetic abnormalities. And all have spent time on a culture medium containing mouse cells, creating a possibility of contamination by nonhuman viruses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now considering whether to allow clinical trials with these cells.

Since 2001, techniques for keeping ES cells alive have improved considerably, and scientists and their supporters in Congress have been clamoring for permission to produce new healthy lines. Some have not waited. Douglas A. Melton of Harvard University, whose two children have type 1 diabetes, is an outspoken critic of the current policy, and in February he announced that he had created 17 brand-new ES cell lines with private funds. He is making the lines freely available to researchers, but most investigators in the U.S. cannot afford to follow government regulations as Melton did by setting up a separate lab for his ES cell work, without so much as a federally funded pipette in it.

A trend toward private funding of ES cell research may make it possible for more U.S. scientists to participate. Andrew S. Grove, founder of Intel, gave $5 million to the University of California at San Francisco to make new ES cell lines. Stanford University started an institute to study cancer using ES cells with a $12-million anonymous grant. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation funded Melton, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research has given more than $5 million to institutions and individual researchers. But the political climate has driven many scientists away from the field entirely and has dampened investor enthusiasm, leaving some biotechnology firms struggling, too.

A few states are trying to turn the tide. Recognizing the potential windfall if ES cell research pays off, California was the first state to endorse stem cell studies officially, in 2002, and will hold a referendum in November seeking $3 billion in state funding for scientists. New Jersey added its endorsement last year and has promised $50 million over five years for the state's researchers.


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