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Meanwhile, the few U.S. institutions that plan to pursue therapeutic cloning in the near future are in limbo. Douglas A. Melton and Kevin Eggan, both at Harvard University, announced plans to try to derive stem cells from clones over a year ago. However, their proposals are still under review by various institutional review boards. B.D. Colen, a spokesman for Harvard, says a final decision is likely within three months.

The state of California, which in 2004 seemed to be a hotbed of stem cell research, is suffering its own setbacks. The $3 billion in state funds approved for stem cell research by Proposition 71 in 2004 has been held up in legal disputes. In the interim, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the state agency that will oversee grants funded by the proposition, is raising money from bonds to try to support stem cell programs. Despite the hold-up, scientists are still optimistic. “Here in California, things are little different,” says Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “Even though we don’t yet have funding from Prop 71, just the potential has galvanized universities and companies to respond to funds.”

UCSF is likely to be a frontrunner in therapeutic cloning. It was the first U.S. institution to attempt therapeutic cloning, albeit unsuccessfully. “Now we hope to start again where those studies left off,” says Kriegstein.

The university is using private funding to build research labs for scientists studying human embryonic stem cells and stocking those labs with equipment bought with nongovernment dollars. They expect the facilities to be finished in 10 to 11 months and have created an ethical review board to review cloning proposals. Susan Fisher and Renee A. Reijo Pera, codirectors of UCSF’s human stem cell biology program, will lead the research.

Stanford University’s newly formed stem cell institute also plans to make therapeutic cloning a major focus. However, those plans are still in the development phase.

ACT’s Lanza also plans to restart his therapeutic cloning program, as soon as he can find a new source of eggs. He says he expects rapid progress, generating cloned embryos within a week or two. “After that, we are in unknown territory. However, there’s no biological reason we shouldn’t be able to generate stem cells,” he says.

Lanza adds that he was particularly dismayed when he heard reports of the actual number of eggs Hwang used in his cloning attempts: more than 1,000 as opposed to 180 eggs reported in the paper. “Just think what we could have done with that number of eggs.”

While generating patient-matched stem cells is a major area of stem cell research, with the potential for broad therapeutic and scientific benefits, it’s not the only goal. Scientists are also trying to understand the basic biology of stem cells, to shed light on both normal development and disease. Ultimately, scientists hope to understand stem cells well enough to take an adult cell in a test tube and revert it back into its stem cell state.

Photo on home page courtesy of Robert Lanza, Advanced Cell Technology.

(A story appearing on Wednesday, January 18, will explore how scientists are learning to control stem cells.)

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