WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) -- Scientists said Wednesday they have created 17 new lines of human embryonic stem cells, an advance that doubles the number of lines available to researchers and could trigger a review of President Bush's policy on the cells.
The new lines appear to offer a number of advantages over the 15 or so lines currently available to federally funded scientists under Bush's policy, and the research community already is abuzz about the opportunities these new cells present for the field of regenerative medicine.
Embryonic stem cells are valued because they have the potential to become any cell type in the body and could be used to repair diseased or damaged tissue. However, some groups oppose the use of the cells because they require the destruction of a human embryo to obtain them.
Bush's policy, announced in 2001, strove to strike a compromise between the ethical concerns and the potential medical benefits. The president limited federal funding to 78 lines of human embryonic stem cells already in existence. Researchers found the lines difficult -- if not impossible -- to obtain, however, and the few they did succeed in getting were of poor quality and often unviable.
Harvard biologist Douglas Melton said this is the reason he decided two years ago to generate the 17 new lines.
Melton, whose son and daughter both suffer from type 1 diabetes, thinks the availability of the cells will help spur research and lead to treatments for currently incurable diseases, ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's.
He also said he will make the new cell lines freely available to any researcher who asks.
"There will be no charge," Melton, who is chair of Harvard's department of molecular and cellular biology, told reporters during a news briefing Monday. "This is common practice in the research community" to share cell lines freely.
The details of his work will appear in the March 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, but because of the significance of the availability of the new cell lines, the journal decided to announce the research early.
With private sources of funding from Harvard University, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Melton was able to raise the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" he said it took to embark on two years of research to generate the new cell lines.
Melton and a team of researchers at Harvard collaborated with Boston IVF, an infertility clinic in Waltham, Mass., to obtain 286 embryos or fertilized eggs "that were otherwise going to be discarded," he said. Melton noted informed consent was obtained from the parents of the embryos.
Each embryo was placed into a culture dish and grown to a mass of about 100 cells. From there, Melton's group was able to obtain embryonic stem cells from 17 of the cell masses -- and he emphasized the cells were harvested "well before the time a natural implantation would have occurred."
Subsequent experiments indicated the new stem cell lines were capable of giving rise to all the cell types in the body. In addition, for reasons that are not yet clear, the new lines grow faster and may be more viable than the 15 cell lines available under the president's policy.
Although the cells can be had for free, there still is a catch for researchers because federal funds are unavailable for research using these cells. Funding from private sources can be used, but this resource option is much smaller and likely would inhibit research conducted with the new cell lines.
For this reason, some researchers already are calling for the new lines to be included with those previously approved by Bush as acceptable for federally funded research. The approved lines are listed in a registry maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
"The cell lines described by Melton and colleagues and the others that will follow should become part of the National Institutes of Health Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry," Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the Journal, wrote in an editorial he co-authored on the new stem cells.
"There is too much suffering that may be remediable through the therapeutic application of this new approach to place the new cell lines off limits to many North American research scientists," Drazen added.
NIH officials said the agency would notify the president of the availability of the new lines, but added it would not advise him on whether he should include the cells in the federally approved lines.
"We provide an analysis of the impact of doing it and not doing it and that's as far as we go," Dr. James Battey, chairman of the NIH committee that oversees stem cell funding, told United Press International. "We don't make recommendations about policy."
The White House did not respond to UPI's request for comment.
Battey said it was difficult to assess the impact the new cell lines would have on the field of regenerative medicine, but he added, "There's no question that since federal funds can't be extended for the 17 cells lines it will slow the development of information about those lines."
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of abortion opposition activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said his group would oppose adding the lines to the NIH's stem cell registry.
"This whole project of destroying embryos for research is unethical in our view and it's also unlikely to produce any treatments any time soon," Doerflinger told UPI.
Despite the lack of federal funding, researchers are enthusiastic about the availability of the new lines.
"This represents a major turning point for stem cell research," said Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a biotech company that seeks to use stem cells to generate medical therapies.
"The availability of the cells will furnish the field with a much needed jump start," Lanza told UPI.
Dr. George Daley, a stem cell biologist at Children's Hospital in Boston, said the new stem cell lines could help lead to cures for disease, but also will prove essential for understanding processes such as gene control, drug toxicity and human development.
"Even if products of human embryonic stem cells never find their way into patients, they remain incredibly important subjects of study," Daley told UPI.
Melton's research also may benefit the field in another way: His research paper offers detailed step-by-step instructions on how to create the cells. This could help other researchers generate additional lines, something that might be just as important in facilitating advances in embryonic stem cell research and regenerative medicine as having the 17 new lines available.
"Those protocols they've used ... really do allow for very straightforward derivation of these cells," Lanza said, noting that up until now, minute details may have been left out of protocols provided by other researchers.
"People will no longer have to pull their hair out to derive these cells," he said. "The more readily these cells are available, the more groups that can get involved and try to apply the technology for this or that disease.
"Sometimes the biggest advancement in a field is eliminating the technical problems," Lanza added.
Melton said he plans to generate more lines of embryonic stem cells, but now he wants to concentrate on figuring out how to coax the new lines into becoming insulin-producing pancreatic cells, something that could prove useful for treating his children and other patients afflicted with diabetes.
"This is not going to happen within this year, but I'm ... actually kind of confident we'll be able to do it," he said and noted studies in mice suggest it is possible.
Melton's own institution, Harvard, said earlier this week it is establishing a stem cell institute. Melton said the university will announce more details at the end of March or in April, but indications are it aims to generate about $110 million in private funding to generate new lines of embryonic stem cells.
"I'm hopeful Harvard will make a very big effort in this area," he said.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com