The National Institutes of Health (NIH) pleased stem cell watchers today by announcing the names of 10 companies and research groups that have human embryonic stem cells federally funded researchers can use. Together, those groups claim to have 64 lines, far more than most experts have believed to be both high-quality and accessible to researchers.
The list has several surprises. One is a relatively unknown company, CyThera, set up less than 2 years ago in San Diego, that claims to have nine embryonic stem cell lines and is currently trying to develop pancreatic islet cells for treatment of diabetes. In another surprise, NIH located two embryonic stem cell groups in India: one at Reliance Life Sciences in Mumbai, which makes new blood products; the other at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. India's biotechnology secretary had earlier told Science she knew of no such cell lines in the country.
How good are the cells? In a statement put on the Web this morning, NIH reported that all 64 lines "show characteristics of stem cell morphology" and have undergone several population doublings, and most of them have demonstrated all the protein markers "known to be associated with human embryonic stem cells." NIH says it will soon come up with more extensive information on the scientific quality of the cells, including details on how they were cultivated, growth characteristics, and evidence of pluripotency (their ability to grow into any of the more than 200 human tissue types).
NIH will not be the middleman for researchers who want access to the cells. "Once they're posted, NIH is basically out of it," says Judith Greenberg, who's in charge of setting up the stem cell registry. Although the NIH Office of Technology Transfer is crafting a model agreement that could be used between stem cell suppliers and researchers, individuals in each transaction will have to work out the details themselves.
Reactions to the Bush policy will be aired next month at an all-day hearing that Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, will hold on 5 September. Meanwhile, observers seem to feel that NIH has been moving expeditiously. Says Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges, "I have to say I think they've done a wonderful job."