WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Although the Bush administration has insisted more than 70 lines of embryonic stem cells are available for research purposes, scientists plan to testify at a Senate hearing next week that they have been able to gain access only to a couple of these lines, United Press International has learned.
This lack of availability may be impeding research that could cure disease and save lives, scientists will say.
Embryonic stem cell research is controversial because it requires the destruction of embryos in order to harvest the cells. Yet it offers enormous potential for treating diseases ranging from Parkinson's to paralysis because the cells have the ability to turn into and, hence, replace any cell or tissue type in the body.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a long-time supporter of embryonic stem cell research, has lined up witnesses to testify Wednesday at a Senate hearing on the subject.
Scientists will testify that "only two or three stem cell lines are actually available," Sudit Parikh -- who serves on the staff of the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations subcommittee -- told UPI. Specter is the subcommittee's ranking member.
Specter also plans to look at "what the National Institutes of Health can do so that it delays research as little as possible," Parikh said.
NIH is the agency responsible for maintaining a registry of the stem cell lines and doling out federal grants for stem cell research. The newly appointed NIH director, Elias Zerhouni, is scheduled to testify. He did not return phone calls from UPI seeking comment.
Last year, President Bush declared federally funded research could use only existing embryonic stem cells derived from excess embryos created during in-vitro fertilization procedures. This action limited scientists working under federal grants to 60 or so stem cell lines. The number was later revised to include as many as 78 lines.
However, most of these lines are owned by companies that refuse to share them or by countries American researchers cannot access, said Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology, which represents more than 10,000 basic biomedical researchers.
"The administration says there are 78 lines when in reality there are only 17 at most," Wilson said, noting Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged in April only 17 lines were available.
A recent study conducted by the journal Science revised that figure downward by one, Wilson said. The ASCB is conducting its own investigation into the number of lines available, and so far the results are in accord with the number obtained by Science.
Wilson said he has looked at the links from the NIH's Web site to the owners of the approved stem cell lines and for the five Korean strains.
"The Web sites are in Korean," he said. "How does that help a researcher in the U.S.?"
In addition, the government of India has yet to decide on its stem cell policy so researchers cannot gain access to the 10 stem cell lines in that country. In other cases, the owners of the cell lines will share their lines only with collaborating researchers.
"If they're not available to the researchers, then they might as well not exist," Wilson said. "Our bigger concern is why the researchers have not gotten involved in embryonic stem cell research" since the president's decision last year. Researchers are not applying for federal grants to conduct this type of research and it appears to be due to the stigma the Bush administration has created around this issue, he said.
Despite saying last year this research offered enormous promise for curing disease, the administration has done nothing to support it, Wilson said. He noted Bush loudly supported bills proposed in the House and Senate that would criminalize therapeutic cloning, which involves the use of embryonic stem cells. The House passed a ban on cloning and the Senate has yet to vote on the issue.
The administration has painted a picture in the public's mind that "people who do work on these cells are evil," Wilson said.
Scientists close to this issue have told Wilson they are concerned about the stigma and political backlash of working with stem cells and this is why they are moving away from that type of research. So the administration effectively has put a halt to this type of research without actually banning it, he said.
"All you have to do is spend the day with Christopher Reeve to understand how delaying this research impacts people's lives," Wilson said, referring to the paralyzed actor who has testified before Congress in support of embryonic stem cell research.