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Scientist at Harvard boosts stem cell pool

A Harvard researcher has quietly grown a massive new batch of human embryonic stem cells for research, the most dramatic achievement to date in a burgeoning international movement to circumvent restrictions on stem cell science set by the Bush administration and other governments.

Last week, word spread that Harvard University molecular biologist Douglas Melton had developed 17 stem cell lines in his Cambridge lab, nearly doubling the world's research supply of the biological building blocks, which scientists are seeking to harness to treat a wide range of diseases. Melton, in an interview this week, said he will give the cells to a private lab in Virginia and a British government facility for distribution to researchers worldwide.

Melton said his work will help scientists fettered by the Bush administration's stem cell policy. In August 2001, President Bush approved 78 select stem cell batches for taxpayer-funded research, saying it was enough to jump-start the science while minimizing the human embryo destruction required to obtain the cells. But only 12 of those batches are currently available to scientists.

Many scientists say 200 or more stem cell batches are needed worldwide to speed disease research. The cells often go bad or get infected by animal viruses, they say. The owners of some batches also restrict access. Furthermore, scientists say, a wide variety of batches, each with differing DNA profiles, would reveal subtle nuances in the complex cells.

"This is exciting for the world stem cell community," said Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem cell specialist at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital. "It's hard to get them right now . . . this gives us more [batches] to figure out which ones will work the best."

Stem cells from human embryos can potentially morph into many body tissues that could offer powerful treatments for various afflictions, including spinal injuries and Parkinson's disease, as well as diabetes, Melton's specialty.

But opponents of the research equate the destruction of week-old human embryos, which is required to obtain stem cells, with abortion.

"For us, the bottom line is that this is the taking of a human life during its earliest point in life. These are people, human beings," said Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, an antiabortion group.

Melton is part of an emerging global network of stem cell scientists who use regular meetings, informal contacts, and the Internet to try to work around the government's restrictions, encouraging colleagues to grow the cells and share them with others at low cost. He started growing the new cell batches shortly after Bush announced his policy two years ago, fearing the president's mandate would hamper research.

"And we were right," he said.

Because Melton's stem cells are not approved by the Bush administration, any US scientist working with them must use private funding, which can be more difficult to obtain.

Of the 12 Bush-approved, stem cell lines now accessible, five are held by Singapore-based biotech firm ES Cell Ltd., two by Australian biotech company BresaGen Ltd., and one by a South Korean hospital.

Universities in California and Wisconsin have the rest.

Dr. James F. Battey, chairman of the stem cell task force of the National Institutes of Health, said he expects four to six more of the approved stem cell lines to become available in the next year.

When Bush announced his stem cell policy in the summer of 2001, most of the cell lines he approved "were in a very primitive stage of development," Battey said. "Most of them are still frozen."

Stem cells must be carefully nurtured and maintained. At the time of Bush's announcement, few labs had this ability. Many simply froze them for storage.

In the last two years, the NIH has given out about 30 embryonic stem cell research grants worth nearly $60 million. The federal agency also has given money to nine institutions with frozen stem cells to assist in thawing and nurturing efforts.

The NIH is usually at the center of the nation's biomedical research, but in the case of stem cells, a parallel effort is emerging in the absence of NIH leadership, specialists said. The basic problem: without the NIH acting as a clearinghouse, researchers often are unaware where in the world stem cell batches are located or how to get them.

"The lines that are out there . . . are not sitting in one room. They tend to be scattered," said Dr. Robert Goldstein of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

In addition to the 17 lines grown by Melton, researchers in Sweden, Finland, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, and Singapore, as well as a team at Rockefeller University in New York, are growing lines that may soon be available, said Goldstein, whose group monitors and funds research worldwide. Reports of new cell lines will be shared at the next gathering of these scientists at a Colorado conference early next year. Available supplies and contact information will be posted on websites that the researchers often visit. Scientists involved in this emerging clique charge one another low prices for the cells.

Melton's work was funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Boston IVF, a local fertility clinic, supplied Melton with embryos for his research, with the consent of parents. The embryos would otherwise have been discarded. Melton will give his stem cell lines to the Manassas, Va.-based American Type Culture Collection, a private tissue storage facility, and the UK Stem Cell Bank, a new British government lab that plans to supply stem cells worldwide.

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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