Number of Stem Cells Lower than Thought

Published November 1, 2001

In August, when President George W. Bush announced his limited support for stem- cell research, he indicated more than “60 genetically diverse stem-cell lines already exist.” Driven by skepticism in scientific quarters, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) researched the President’s claim and identified the location of 64 stem-cell lines.

It appears now, however, that the NIH count may have been wrong, and far fewer than 64 cell lines may be available for researchers.

Half as Many?

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has confirmed in Senate hearings there may be fewer than 30 “diverse, robust and viable [cell lines] for research.” That number, according to many researchers, is not enough to ensure the wide-ranging research promised by Bush.

Getting an accurate count of the number of cell lines available is a key element in the public policy debate over stem-cell research. The amount of funding Congress will approve for research is likely to depend on the number of lines available, and that funding could be inadequate if fewer lines are available than expected. Moreover, legislation barring many potential methods for creating new stem-cell lines may be wholly inappropriate if the current number of cell lines is low.

The President was adamant that federal funding for stem-cell research would be available only for research employing stem cells collected by August 9, 2001 from “excess” embryos donated by fertility clinics. But foreign governments have no such restrictions on the collection of stem-cells. Bush’s decision likely means researchers seeking federal government funding would be prohibited from taking advantage of foreign-source cell lines. Research could be further stifled by the business goals of some stem-cell line owners, and by the possibility that available cell-lines could “crash” for reasons unknown.

Administration Spin

HHS Secretary Thompson, in an opinion essay, reminded USA Today readers that the “administration made it clear the 64 stem-cell lines were in various stages of development and that they are all eligible for federal funding.”

He also noted “there are ample stem-cells for basic research.” He pointed out the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation owns five stem-cell lines . . . and the discoveries the Foundation has made to date come from just two of those lines. In the short term, then, the apparent shortfall in cell lines shouldn’t delay research.

But it’s also important to note that fewer stem-cell lines means less genetic diversity, raising the possibility important research may not be forthcoming.

It would appear the stem-cell research debate is far from over. At best, federal government agencies won’t be ready to start giving research grants until next year . . . and the events of September 11 are likely to keep the issue on the back burner for months to come.