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Nearly two years after the isolation of human embryonic stem cells promised to change the face of medical research, progress is still on hold due to scientists’ limited access to the cells. Private companies are restricting use of their supplies, and government initiatives to provide the cells to academics remain stalled by abortion politics.

ES cells, believed to be capable of turning into any kind of tissue, are derived from human embryos. A law prohibiting federally funded researchers from performing embryo research has left most academic scientists effectively barred from working with ES cells, although the National Institutes of Health has recommended that researchers be able to use existing ES cell lines. A bill pending in the U.S. Senate would allow researchers to derive new ones as well. Critics of the research are opposing both measures.

This game of political football has left the research community in a bind, with few good options for getting the cells. Although the University of Wisconsin (where ES cells were isolated in 1998) has created an institute called WiCell to distribute ES cells, scientists that come knocking are being asked to sign an agreement with “unacceptable and ridiculous” strings attached, says Harvard University embryologist Doug Melton. Not only does WiCell demand commercial rights to any discoveries made, but also reserves the right to terminate research at any time with 90 days’ notice.

“The agreement holds the Sword of Damocles over your research,” says George Daley, a biologist at MIT’s Whitehead Institute. Unable to find an acceptable source of ES cells in the United States, both Melton and Daley have turned to a university group in Israel that’s begun distributing the cells.

But because such trafficking still leaves most U.S. researchers out in the cold, several private medical charities are now gearing up to fund sources of ES cells that would be widely accessible. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation has funded a researcher in the United Kingdom to derive stem cells. In a closed meeting in early April, leaders of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the nation’s largest biomedical not-for-profit, discussed the role the foundation should take in pushing ES cell research forward. According to people who attended the meeting, HHMI leaders discussed the idea of funding two or three centers to derive ES cells. These centers would be located in different parts of the country to ensure that one or more survive the wrath of pro-lifers in the state legislatures.

While biomedical researchers would welcome the entry of HHMI, many say it wouldn’t be enough. Larry Goldstein, an HHMI-funded investigator at the University of California, San Diego who has been lobbying both Hughes and the government to let ES cell research progress, says privately funded research is moving forward, but only in the shadows, without proper public supervision. “Scientists with private funding are proceeding to the best of their ability. It’s a mistake to think that if the government doesn’t fund this work it will stop it in its tracks,” says Goldstein. “There needs to be public input. To lose that voice would be wrong.”

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