One of the nation’s leading stem cell researchers is leaving California to work in Britain, in part because of the political uncertainties surrounding the use of human embryonic material in the United States.
The decision by Roger Pedersen of UC San Francisco, which the university confirmed Sunday, is the latest and one of the most dramatic illustrations of the political problems that researchers are facing as they attempt to understand embryonic stem cells. Many scientists think the cells hold the key to creating treatments for a wide range of diseases.
Because President Bush has suspended a plan to federally fund such research, pending a review of whether it is legal and ethical, scientists are uncertain whether they can continue their work, and others have chosen not to enter the field. Bush has said he will make a decision whether to adopt a funding plan within weeks, and the lobbying battle to sway him, which pits patient advocates against anti-abortion groups, has become as fierce as any yet in his administration.
At the same time, academic researchers who have private funding for embryonic cell experiments, which are legal, have been told in many cases that they must do their work off campus, an effort to make sure federal dollars do not pay for even a light bulb involved in the controversial work.
And some researchers say they are finding it hard to work with the private companies that control much of the limited, existing supply of stem cells, because the companies are asking for rights to research results that universities do not want to sign away.
“If federal support for stem cell research is not forthcoming, the risk exists that talented scientists will leave academic centers to seek opportunities in the private sector, or even overseas,” said Dr. Haile Debas, dean of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine. “That would be a tragedy of the greatest proportion.”
More than 100 research teams have requested human embryonic stem cells from WiCell Research Institute Inc.--the main supplier in the U.S. and one of only a handful in the world--but only 30 teams have received the cells.
“If there was federal funding available, there would be 70 more groups taking cells very, very quickly,” said Andrew Cohn, a spokesman for WiCell. “And we think there would be a lot more asking, after that.”
Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become nearly every other cell and tissue type in the body, raising hopes that they can one day be used to fashion replacement parts for failing organs. But anti-abortion groups say the research is equivalent to murder, because embryos are destroyed in order to harvest the cells.
Those opposed to using embryonic stem cells argue that research can go forward with adult cells, though many scientists say such cells are more limited in their potential.
Bush suggested during the election campaign last summer that he opposed embryonic cell research, but he has asked his staff to review the science, law and ethics involved. Research advocates take that as a signal that he is considering whether to change his initial position.
At UC San Francisco, Pedersen has been director of the reproductive genetics unit within the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences.
He is well known for his work in exploring how mouse embryonic stem cells give rise to various parts of the animal’s body. He also is working with human embryonic cells, a university spokeswoman said, and had been trying to derive stem cells from human embryos donated by fertility clinic patients.
Pedersen declined to discuss the political situation in the United States, but said he was leaving for “the possibility of carrying out my research with human embryonic stem cells with public support.”
Though he is leaving, Pedersen is expected to maintain some ties to UC San Francisco.
Debas, the medical school dean, said Pedersen “is obviously seeking an opportunity where he can do his work with less difficulty than he faces in the United States.”
Rules vary around the world on whether it is ethical and legal to work with embryos. Many European nations have barred or discouraged the work, but the British Parliament last year explicitly authorized research involving embryonic cells, as well as the creation of embryos for research purposes, for scientists who obtain licenses.
That action made Britain one of the most permissive nations on embryo work, though teams in Israel, Australia and Singapore have also aggressively pursued work on human embryonic stem cells.
Pedersen in April suspended his own work in harvesting human stem cells from embryos until it could be moved off campus. The move was undertaken to make sure the university was following National Institutes of Health rules that bar the federal government from covering overhead costs, for such things as lighting or refrigeration, for research involving human embryonic stem cells.
Many other U.S. universities have asked their researchers to segregate embryonic cell work from federally funded experiments, even in cases where researchers offer to reimburse the NIH for any overhead costs that stem cell projects might share with other work.
Another complication, some researchers say, is that it is unclear whether the NIH would allow work with all existing stem cells, even if Bush authorizes federal funding. It is likely that the agency would consider some existing stem cells to be unacceptable because they were not created under the strict ethics guidelines that the agency published last year.
Among other things, those guidelines were aimed at ensuring that no embryos are created for research purposes and the only embryos used come from fertility patients, who must donate them without coercion or financial incentive.
“We’re simply not allowed to do the research. We have to wait for the [Bush] decision before we can do any type of this research,” said Lorenz Studer, a researcher at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Studer wants to learn to guide human embryonic stem cells to become a type of brain cell that is destroyed in Parkinson’s disease. The goal is to understand the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease and to create cells that might be transplanted to patients.
He has already created the brain cells from mouse embryonic stem cells and is now working with nonhuman primates. But the work would progress more quickly with human cells than with other primate cells, he said, because more of the human genetic code is understood.
Ali Hemmati Brivanlou, a researcher at Rockefeller University in New York, is also trying to understand how an embryo develops parts of an organism. “If we know how an embryo makes an organ--a pancreas or a brain--we can better understand what goes wrong when it goes wrong, as in Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
Brivanlou had worked with frogs, chickens and mice, then about a year ago asked the university if he could study human cells. Because of the political uncertainties, the university suggested that he take a sabbatical and work with a private company.
Brivanlou approached Geron Corp., the leading private stem cell research company, but when he saw the terms of its proposed contract, he and the university balked. He says Geron would have had the right to bar Brivanlou even from talking with colleagues about any of his research at the company, a provision that is common in the business world but inhibits the free flow of information most academic researchers consider necessary.
And if Brivanlou used Geron cells after his return to Rockefeller University, the company would not only have the first right to license his discoveries, which is common, but would be able to bar Brivanlou from bringing those discoveries to another company if Geron did not want to use them.
“This provision is simply unacceptable,” Brivanlou said. “Because of these delays, I’m working with my frogs. But I feel I’m not doing the experiments that I want to do.”
Geron declined a request for comment.
Brivanlou said he is now looking for private funding to do the work.
Another researcher, Doug Melton of Harvard University, said that coming to terms with private companies was so difficult that he had resolved to take the trouble to create human embryonic stem cells on his own.