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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mass. law slows stem cell research, Harvard scientist says

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff

One of Harvard’s best and brashest used a major conference on stem cells to lambaste the policies of a commonwealth that takes huge pride in medical research

"In Massachusetts, we have a law meant to support stem cell research, but it creates restrictions that are more onerous than in states" where religious fundamentalists, conservative legislators and other opponents actively fight medical research involving human embryos, Kevin Eggan said today at the Stem Cell Summit, a two-day conference that brought some of the world’s top stem cell researchers to Boston.

Eggan, a Harvard molecular biologist and leading stem cell scientist, was voicing deepening frustration that the Harvard University Stem Cell Institute's research into one of medicine’s most promising, if controversial fields, has been slowed by lack of raw materials – human eggs. More than a year after Harvard vowed to create cloned human embryonic stem cells for research, the institute has not been able to persuade a single eligible woman to donate a single egg.

Eggan blames a Massachusetts law that forbids researchers from paying women to donate eggs. The law is meant to prevent researchers from exploiting poor women who might be willing to undergo the lengthy and occasionally painful procedures for a cash pay-off. Eggan considers it hypocritical that women can be paid to "donate" eggs for use in fertility treatments, but not for stem cell research that, many scientists believe, holds enormous promise for combating degenerative diseases, cancer, and spinal injuries.

"Despite an advertising campaign to find donors, we have yet to have a woman donate an egg to our cause," Eggan said. Only women age 25 to 35 are eligible as donors.

"We’ve had hundreds of calls" from women expressing interest, Eggan said. But none, so far, is willing to take the time, effort, and slight medical risk purely for altruism.

The question of paying individuals to donate tissue -- whether a kidney or an egg -- is complex and bitterly controversial. And while most stem cell scientists share Eggan’s frustration with the pace of research, not all agree with his notion that money is the answer.

"This is a tremendously contentious issue," said George Q. Daley, a blood specialist at Children's Hospital Boston and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Many stem cell researchers, Daley told the same panel discussion at the conference, believe that paying "market rates" for donated eggs is morally unacceptable. But he indicated that there is more support for the idea that women should be paid something in compensation for undergoing a process that typically takes two months.

The Stem Cell Summit, at the Hynes Convention Center, attracted almost everyone who is anyone in the stem cell world, including researchers from Australia, South Korea, Japan, Great Britain, Canada, Italy and the Netherlands. The conference, sponsored by Harvard, the Genetics Policy Institute, and Burrill Life Sciences Media Group, ends Wednesday.

Along with physicians, scientists, and eager venture capitalists, the conference attracted people suffering from conditions that might eventually be cured by stem cell advances.

Among them was Brooke Ellison, author of the book "Miracles Happen," based on her struggles after a 1990 accident left her paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on a ventilator for breathing.

"The potential of cures that may arrive out of stem cells represent the most powerful manifestation of hope in the world today," said Ellison, a Harvard graduate who raises money for stem cell research.

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