Free For All

With expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research off the table, institutions are finding their own way.
July 25, 2006

Harvard University researchers aren't being wasteful; they really need both of those staplers. The one with the red sticker can be used in the lab space for human embryonic stem cell research, but not in an area where federal grants are being used for the studies.

With President Bush having vetoed legislation last week to allow federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells -- beyond those created prior to August 2001, which can be used -- institutions are settling in with some of the inconveniences of a field largely estranged from the normal sources of funding and peer review. Among other things, they have to diligently monitor what equipment is not purchased or operated with federal dollars so that it can be used for embryonic stem cell research. Hence the spaler stickers.

B.D. Colen, a spokesman for Harvard on science issues, said that “this is a bizarre situation. The university has to spend time and money putting stickers on things.”

Harvard has an FAQ online informing embryonic stem cell researchers about what equipment can be used for what task, and, like other universities doing embryonic stem cell research, they have had to set up a separate accounting system to make sure that the government is being charged for absolutely nothing that aids embryonic stem cell research. Some Harvard researchers have federal grants for certain research and private money for embryonic stem cell research, and never the twain should meet.

The University of Minnesota also had to revamp accounting procedures to make sure that even the cost of having the lights on in an area where stem cell research is occurring is subtracted from what the government pays for research in the same building.

At least, according to Ed Wink, Minnesota’s associate vice president for research, the university hasn’t had to duplicate much equipment. “A lot of the people doing this work are new to the institution,” Wink said, “so the equipment is all brand new.”

Beyond staplers and lights, though, some wasteful redundancies might be unavoidable. “Resources will be spent replicating processes that already exist,” Michael Werner, president of the Werner Group, a biotech consulting firm in Washington, said of the accounting and funding review procedures for which institutions and states typically depend on the National Institutes of Health. “We’re going to have to reinvent a lot of wheels instead of driving a car.”

Werner said it’s a mistake to think that state funding of embryonic stem cell research -- California has allotted $3 billion over a decade -- will supplant the need for federal leadership. He noted that California has struggled with issues like whether the state needs to make some money back from results of research done with public money, and how to handle intellectual property. “NIH has not only money,” Werner said, “but they have this uniform, well settled modus operandi that applies to grant applications, peer review, intellectual property rules, conflicts of interest.”

The University of Minnesota, along with the Mayo Clinic, set up a panel of outside scientists to review proposals for embryonic stem cell research, according to Sarah Youngerman, a spokeswoman for Minnesota, so that the state can be confident in the research it might fund.

Youngerman added that the current situation disadvantages public institutions, because they rely on state lawmakers for much of their funding, so dealing with such a politically charged issue as human embryonic stem cell research can be tricky. She said that one of the concerns of current faculty members is that young researchers will be reticent to enter a field with a tenuous funding base.

The government “is talking about competitiveness” and bolstering the science pipeline, said Leo Furcht, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, “and they’re suppressing it.”

“I would hope that young people aren’t turning away from working on stem cell research,” Furcht said. “Many fundamental experiments can be done with existing lines or animal lines.” But, he added, “there are deficiencies in many if not most of the existing lines.” Some of the lines may be contaminated with pathogens, because of the way they were derived, which involved contact with mouse cells.

Furcht added that “the beauty of the peer review system” at NIH is that thousands of scientists are involved. “When dealing with corporate and state funded research,” he said, “it’s difficult to replicate the quality as when it’s done at a national level.… There’s no question there will be redundancies.”

Some researchers have expressed concern that scientists might leave the United States for countries that embrace embryonic stem cell research. Furcht, however, said he thinks that is happening in only a very small number of cases. “There have been some scientists,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s been a mass exodus.”

Plus, the United States is far from the only Western nation where stem cell research is facing a bumpy road. Ministers of eight European Union countries -- Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta -- pushed recently to ban money from the EU’s common budget for use in supporting embryonic stem cell research. On Monday, the nations reached a compromise that will allow some funding to continue.

Germany led the charge, and Furcht said that it’s “a swing of the pendulum away from eugenics.” Several other stem cell research experts said that Germany’s opposition comes largely from a desire to dissociate the country from painful images of the past.

Still, there are friendly shores for stem cell researchers who do want to leave. Rochelle Seide, a patent law expert and partner at Arent Fox, in New York, said that England has emerged as a leader in stem cell research, with a centralized oversight body. With regulation now up to local governments, Seide said that, even if there is no migration of scientists abroad, “there may be a migration among states.”


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