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Stem Cell Battle Being Fought Behind Closed Doors

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"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.

Still, one of the unintended consequences of the president's action is to enhance the importance of a previously little known group, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, which holds a key patent on extracting stem cells. A University of Wisconsin researcher, James Thompson, PhD, is credited with discovering stem cells.

WARF also has five cell lines of its own and a subsidiary, WiCell, that has been set up to provide stem cells to researchers under specific deals.

Presumably, NIH officials have been working closely with WARF to set up model agreements, as well as others who hold the precious cell lines. An NIH spokesman says researchers from as far away as Australia and Singapore are participating.

"He [Mr. Bush] created a limited monopoly, and that does bring special problems, that have to be sorted out," says Goldstein.

Meanwhile, a WARF spokesperson says his organization has already offered these cells to some 30 researchers around the world. "Since we, as a nonprofit foundation, are interested in making sure that this technology is provided as inexpensively and as free of restrictions as possible, this technology is in better shape because of that," WARF spokespman Andrew Cohn tells WebMD.

However, after WARF entered into a relationship with Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, Calif., to develop certain stem cell types, the foundation sued the company over its plan to do even more research. Neither Geron nor WARF would comment on the litigation.

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