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Stem Cells: Policies and Players

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Frequently lost in the policy discussions about human embryonic stem cells research are concrete realities that will determine how quickly such research will result in treatments and cures. Scientists are conducting research. Federal and local legislators are writing laws to broadly support the research. Non-profit health organizations and private companies are funding some of the most cutting-edge approaches. Here we will offer a selection of current research programs, new lawmaking, and happenings away from government and academia that will contribute to useful understandings of stem cells.

Legislation | Researchers | Stem Cell News | Cloning News


United Nations

Discussion on a proposal before the United Nations to institute a worldwide ban on all forms of human cloning has been suspended until some time in 2004. The United States, together with several other countries, initiated the proposal, which would have included a ban on research cloning as well as reproductive cloning. But a number of other countries, including Great Britain, objected to the ban on research cloning and wanted to suspend all debate on cloning until 2005. Following intense diplomatic and parliamentary maneuvering, the parties finally agreed to take up the matter in 2004. More about the activity at the United Nations concerning human cloning and a record of the vote to suspend discussion may be found at

United States

In April 2004, more than 200 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent President Bush a letter, asking him to increase the number of human embryonic stem cell lines that should be eligible for public funding. Two months later, a group of U.S. Senators backed up their colleagues in the House and sent a similar letter to the White House. In essence, the signers were trying to get the President to change his mind about stem cell lines used for research so that Congress does not have to create a legislative solution.

Read more: New Support for Stem Cell Research Seen in U.S. Congress

On 9 August 2001, President George W. Bush made a long-awaited announcement regarding research on human embryonic stem cells. The President declared that federal funds could be used to support research on cell lines that were already in existence on that date. He also said that no federal dollars could be used in research on new human embryonic cell lines. At the time, many scientists were pleased that the research was not banned altogether. Others were disappointed that the White House had effectively prohibited the creation of new stem cell lines using federal funding.

Text of President Bush’s announcement

Although some 70 different human embryonic stem cell lines are eligible for use in federally funded research, it appears that in reality only about nine or so are of immediate use to scientists. As researchers look ahead to potential clinical trials with stem cells, it is becoming apparent that few, if any, of these lines will have any therapeutic value, in part because they were grown along with “feeder” cells from mice. Many researchers would prefer to work on “all human” culture systems, but the development of these systems has been blocked by the White House’s regulations.

In large part as a result of the President’s decision, the U.S. Congress has taken a renewed interest in legislation regulating embryo research. Most recently, in February 2003, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and others introduced legislation that would expand research options by allowing cells to be newly isolated from embryos, including cloned embryos—those created for research purposes only and not through fertilization. The legislation would outlaw reproductive cloning.

S. 303: Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2003

STATUS: referred to committee 5 February 2003

Although embryonic stem cell research is not illegal in the United States, two states, California and New Jersey, have passed legislation permitting it and others are considering such laws.


Californians Approve $3 Billion for Stem Cells
(November 2004)

On November 2, 2004, voters in California approved Proposition 71, which allows the state to borrow $3 billion for research on stem cells. The measure passed with 59 percent of the vote.

Californians to Vote on Funding Stem Cell Research
(September 2004)

Voters in California will be the first in the country to cast ballots on an initiative that supports human stem cell research in a concrete way: by providing funding. The Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would authorize the sale of about $3 billion bonds over the course of ten years. The bulk of the money raised by the bonds would go to support a wide range of stem cell research.

The proposal would also create a new entity, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. This institute would distribute grants and loans to individual researchers and research programs, as well as develop regulatory standards and create new research facilities as needed. The initiative, Proposition 71, will appear on the ballot November 2nd, 2004.

California is at the forefront of a new push not only to allow but also to encourage stem cell research. A new law signed on 23 September 2002 by Governor Gray Davis specifically allows research on embryos, including the use of cloned embryos. The law prohibits reproductive cloning. The law does not appropriate funds specifically for research, but research centers may direct non-federal money to stem cell studies.

California current stem cell law | Text of Proposition 71, including analysis and arguments (PDF)

California is at the forefront of a new push not only to allow but also to encourage stem cell research. A new law signed on 23 September 2002 by Governor Gray Davis specifically allows research on embryos, including the use of cloned embryos. The law prohibits reproductive cloning. The law does not appropriate funds specifically for research, but research centers may direct non-federal money to stem cell studies.

California current stem cell law

Current bills:
SB771 (Legislation dealing with human cells: stem cell research and egg cell donation)
(amended 21 April 2003)

SB322 (Review panels)
(amended 21 April 2003)

In addition, California Health & Safety Codes (§ 123440, 24185, 24187, 24189, 12115-7) and Business & Professions Codes( §16004, §16105) provide for the revocation of licenses issued to businesses for violations relating to human cloning. The codes also prohibit the purchase or sale of ovum, zygote, embryo, or fetus for the purpose of cloning human beings. There are civil penalties for violations. (Source: National Conference of State Legislatures.)

New Jersey

New Jersey is frequently on the cutting edge of science and public policy. It is now the second state (after California) to pass legislation allowing embryonic stem cell research.

A law signed on January 2, 2004, by Governor James E. McGreevey permits research and use of human embryonic stem cells, germ cells, and human adult stem cells from any source. It also requires physicians treating infertility patients to provide these patients with information about donating human embryos after infertility treatment.


Australia bans all human cloning whether for reproduction or research. This includes a ban on embryo splitting and other techniques that might create a clone without fertilization. But Australia does allow the use of embryos remaining after assisted reproduction, as long as those embryos were created before 5 April 2002. This federal law supersedes all previous state-level laws concerning embryonic stem cell and cloning research.

Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002
(full text in PDF only; 38 pages)

United Kingdom

Research Cloning Approved in UK
(August 2004)

The United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has issued a license that will allow researchers to create colonies of human stem cells for the purposes of research. The license specifies that the stem cells will be used for research purposes only and not to clone a human being.

The license was granted to the Newcastle Center for Life on August 11, 2004, and is good for one year. After that year, the researchers may continue to work on any stem cell lines (the isolated populations of stem cells) that they have established. They will not be able to continue the cloning and stem cell isolation procedures unless a new license is issued.

Press release | HFEA Web site

New Stem Cell Lines Created in UK
(October 2003)

New lines will increase research opportunities, but not for most American researchers.

In March 2002, a research group from King's College in London received one of the first licenses from the United Kingdom 's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to isolate stem cells from human embryos and establish cultures of stem cells that could be propagated or frozen. Those cell cultures, or lines, now exist and will be part of the UK's Stem Cell Bank. A description of the isolation of the cells was reported in the October 2003 issue of the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online.

The group, led by Stephen Minger and Susan Pickering, created three separate stem cell populations from 58 embryos. The group used an approach that is valuable for research purposes but is unlikely to yield therapies immediately. They were able to use embryos that had been created through in vitro fertilization for reproductive purposes but that had ultimately not been selected because they carried gene mutations. The women undergoing fertility treatments donated the embryos.

Although the creation of the cell lines was not a surprise, the availability of these cells is significant. Researchers from other countries have anecdotally reported the establishment of stem cell lines, but this is the first scientific publication describing the isolation of stem cells under government guidelines specific to stem cell research.

More important, the deposit to the Stem Cell Bank is the bellwether of many more stem cell lines to come, both from the UK licenses and, presumably, from researchers in other countries operating under their respective regulations.

Thus, more materials will be accessible to more researchers, who can use them to design informative experiments, which is what the field needs in order to advance. Researchers in the United States will not be able to use Federal funding for work on these lines, as they were created after 9 August 2001 (see section on the United States).


The United Kingdom has since 1990 allowed research using embryos remaining after assisted reproductive procedures. Laws in the UK also allow for the creation of embryos for research. Most of this research falls under the control of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The 1990 law covers the use of such embryos for research in reproductive biology, but a new interpretation of the law in 2001 expanded this to include many types of basic research. The allowance for cloning is being challenged by several groups.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990

Human Reproductive Cloning Bill 2001
(full text in PDF only; 2 pages)

The United Kingdom is developing a stem cell bank that would make a variety of characterized and newly derived stem cell cultures available to researchers. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would oversee the selection of cell lines to be established and included in the bank. The Medical Research Council would run the bank.


The Swiss Parliament is considering the possibility of allowing research on stem cells derived from stored embryos remaining at the end of assisted reproduction procedures if they were frozen at seven or fewer days of development. The research could only be for non-commercial, “therapeutic” purposes, and the proposal bans the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes. In addition, work may eventually be allowed on a limited number of stem cell cultures imported from other countries.

This legislation is notable because the Swiss Constitution broadly prohibits research using human embryos and even sets controls over the number of eggs that may be fertilized and developed outside a woman’s body during fertility treatments. This control has resulted in between 1,000 and 5,000 embryos being frozen in Switzerland (by comparison, there may be about 400,000 in the United States). If the Swiss legislation passes, the nation’s thousands of embryos may become available to researchers. Thus, a country that has seemed averse to human embryo research may find itself at the forefront of stem cell research.


John Gearhart is Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the first to describe the successful culturing of human embryonic germ cells and published a landmark 1998 paper on human primordial germ cells. Aware of the political ramifications of the research, his laboratory used no federal money during the course of that study (though it would have been eligible for funding). In addition to his work on various aspects of human development, he has become involved in various bioethics projects. He is a member of the Project in Cellular Engineering, Ethics, and Public Policy at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins.

Related Link: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 95, Issue 23, 13726-13731, November 10, 1998

Ron McKay is Senior Investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. McKay’s laboratory studies the process by which stem cells become specific cell types, known as differentiation. His laboratory has been designated to characterize the nine or so embryonic stem cell lines that are currently available to federally funded researchers. This project, which could take several years, involves completely describing the cell lines, their growth characteristics, the conditions they require to grow robustly, which genes are turned on or off, and so on. This information is standard for all newly created cell lines and will help researchers decide which lines may be best for their experiments. His laboratory is also known for experiments that led to the alleviation of symptoms in a mouse model of Parkinson's disease.

Douglas Melton is the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University and a co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. His research focuses generally on the development of the pancreas and more specifically on stem cells, particularly those that might be important in the treatment of diabetes. He was the principal investigator on the project that yielded 17 new stem cell lines, paid for completely with private funds. These cell lines are currently available to all investigators using private funds for their research. Melton has testified before the U.S. Senate on stem cell research concerns, and he is active in a variety of groups concerned with the conduct of stem cell research, including the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International.

See also: Researchers Discover Unexpected Source of Insulin-Producing Cells

Related Links: Melton home page | Melton testimony before Congress

James Thomson is Professor of Anatomy at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison. He was the first to describe the in vitro culture of human embryonic stem cells. He currently studies the factors that promote cell self-renewal, the maintenance of pluripotency, and the pathways leading to the differentiation to specific cell types. His laboratory recently demonstrated a novel use of a specific gene-targeting technique for human embryonic stem cells. The technique, called homologous recombination, allows scientists to remove or insert a specific stretch of DNA—sometimes even a whole gene—from a single cell. The study marked the first time the procedure worked successfully in human stem cells, though it is routinely used in mice. The potential applications for this technology include research on gene therapy treatments.

Original culturing paper: Science Nov 6 1998: 1145-1147.

Catherine Verfaillie is Director of the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her research focuses on how the identities of various tissues are determined. That is, how does muscle become muscle and not skin, or bone? In the process of this research, her team isolated multipotent adult progenitor cells—human cells that apparently do not yet have even a general identity determined. Although they might not be stem cells in the strictest sense, they appear to give rise to a variety of cell types found in virtually all organs. These included the tissue that gives rise to the nervous system, to the musculoskeletal system, and to skin.

Irving Weissman is the Karel and Avice Beekhuis Professor of Cancer Biology, Professor of Pathology and developmental biology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine in California. He was recently appointed to direct the newly formed Stanford Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. One of the earliest to recognize the breadth and depth of potential stem cell therapies, Weissman founded two companies (SyStemix and StemCells, Inc.) and has been an outspoken proponent of cloning for research purposes. He heads the US National Academy of Science’s panel on cloning, and as such is frequently a lightning rod for opponents of stem cell research. He is a pioneer of the field called “adult stem cell biology” and has isolated of various blood cell precursors in mice.

See also: The Politics of Stem Cells

Related Link: Lasker Foundation interview with Irving Weissman

Compiled by Michele Garfinkel

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