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Stem Cell Battle Being Fought Behind Closed Doors

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 22, 2001 (Washington) -- Somewhere on the vast campus of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, private and public stakeholders are working in secret to further define George W. Bush's new policy on stem cell research. Ultimately, a whole generation of treatments as well as billions of dollars are at stake.

Yet the public and the media are all but barred from the meetings. LeRoy Walters, PhD, a medical ethicist at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University who met with President Bush and offered advice on the controversial technology, says the approach is misguided.

"My preference in all of government is for transparency. So I would love to see much more openness about everything that is going on in human embryonic stem cell research," Walters tells WebMD.

Among the players at the NIH sessions are government officials, representatives from a not-for-profit foundation that holds a key patent on "deriving" stem cells, and other organizations from five countries around the world that hold clusters or "lines" of stem cells. Somehow, these groups must cobble together a plan that satisfies researchers but stays within the president's razor sharp ethical guidelines.

On Aug. 9, Bush said he will permit federal funding for stem cell research but only using some 60 lines already in existence. The president, true to his "pro-life" values, said he would not allow the destruction of additional human embryos -- the primary source of these versatile primitive cells. It's believed they can be transformed into virtually any tissue in the body and used as treatments for diseases ranging from Parkinson's to spinal cord injuries to heart disease.

But before any of that happens many key issues have to be resolved. Among them, are there actually 60 cell lines, and if so, where are they, and who owns them? A spokesman at the NIH says one goal of the meeting is to develop a registry of stem cell lines so they can be categorized and evaluated for quality.

Still, many researchers wonder if that many cell lines actually exist, and if so, whether they will be enough.

"Sixty would be great for the initial research, and to start things off, and that, as soon as you start thinking about real ... applications, it's hard to imagine how you're not going to need more genetic diversity than that," Lawrence Goldstein, PhD, a stem cell researcher in animals at the University of California in San Diego tells WebMD.

Goldstein, and others, will be testifying before Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Sept. 5 on the subject of stem cells.

"I think the president made a good first step. I wish he'd gone farther, but where he went is a good start," says Goldstein.

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