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Stem Cell Hunters Capture Their Prey

The human embryonic stem cell, which could be used to grow any other human tissue, has been a stubborn and elusive prey (see “The Troubled Hunt for the Ultimate Cell,” TR July/August 1998). Now, in the scientific equivalent of a photo finish, two teams have announced, in Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, respectively, the isolation of stem cells from human embryos. Their results could have very significant implications for biological research and transplant medicine.

The race was complicated by a ban on federal funds for embryo research and opposition from pro-life groups. As a result, funding has come from the private sector. Indeed, both winning groups, one led by James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, the other by John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, had financial backing from Geron Corp., a biotech company in Menlo Park, Calif.

Though the race for the ultimate human cell may be over, the story isn’t. Researchers are likely to tangle for rights to claim the discovery-and patent applications already filed by other teams could complicate the picture.

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