Stem Cell Colonies' Viability Unproven

By Ceci Connolly and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 28, 2001

At least one-third of the 64 embryonic stem cell colonies approved for funding under a new Bush administration policy are so young and fragile it remains unclear whether they will ever prove useful to scientists, several researchers working on the cells said yesterday.

In fact, at least 16 of those colonies have been subject to so little research that the Swedish scientists working on them are unwilling to claim they are embryonic stem cells capable of becoming any kind of human tissue.

When President Bush announced Aug. 9 that he was willing to fund research only on existing stem cell colonies, or "lines," he and his top health adviser said more than 60 lines existed worldwide -- more than enough, they said, to launch a new and vibrant era of medical research. The existing lines, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said at the time, "are diverse, they're robust and they're viable for research."

But interviews with several scientists whose cell lines were identified yesterday by the National Institutes of Health as meeting the Bush criteria raised questions about whether many will live up to that advance billing.

At Goteborg University in Sweden, which the NIH identified as home to the world's largest collection of embryonic stem cell lines -- about 19 in all -- a key scientist called into question the NIH's numbers.

"I was a little surprised to see the NIH calling them 19 lines," said neurobiologist Peter Eriksson, part of a six-member team developing stem cell lines there. "Maybe they misinterpreted a little bit."

At most, he said, three of the 19 batches of cells could be called stem cell lines.

The largest cache of embryonic stem cells in the United States belongs to CyThera Inc., a 12-person biotechnology firm in San Diego that is at least several months from providing a colony to researchers, officials said.

"The last thing the NIH wants and the last thing we want is to give somebody a half-baked research tool that they can't use," said Michael Ross, CyThera's president and chief executive.

At Reliance Life Sciences in India, four of the seven cell lines included in the NIH tally have barely cleared the first hurdles in the long process of proving their identity and usefulness as stem cells. The three remaining lines are even younger and could easily "peter out," said Firuza Parikh, founder and director of the Bombay-based research firm.

"We are in the very initial stages," Parikh said. "We still need to characterize these lines."

William Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said it may be too early to judge the quality of the existing cell lines and emphasized that scientists are eager to begin work on them. Even if some of the 64 lines do not last long, he said, they could still provide worthwhile information for scientists and further Bush's goal of pursuing "basic research."

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