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Funding, other barriers hinder stem cell research

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

The old adage, "one man's trash is another man's treasure," rings true in today's stem cell research. Steve Stice finds the promise of a cure for debilitating human injuries and diseases in the waste from fertility clinics.

"Just one stem cell can produce billions of cells for research," said Stice, a preeminent stem cell scientist with the University of Georgia, in a presentation to the Georgia General Assembly's Health and Human Services Committee Feb. 7.

Stice noted that when doctors fertilize eggs in vitro, or outside the woman's body in an artificial medium, some of the fertilized eggs won't grow enough to be viable embryos. Fertility clinics discard these nonviable embryos from failed fertility attempts every day.

"Until 2001," he said, "we used these discarded materials to create the stem cell lines we now use in research."

In 2001, federal legislation approved only 20 already existing stem cell lines on the National Institutes of Health registry for federal funding. Stice had four of those, three of which remain viable lines for research today.

"The promise is ... that the cure is there," said Rusty Kidd, a lobbyist for Georgia medical organizations. "(Scientists) just need money and time to perfect it. But they're hampered significantly by the federal guidelines on what they can and can't do with stem cells."

One such guideline is that only those stem cell lines that were designated in 2001 can be studied with federal grants. "After a while, those aren't as strong as they were in the beginning," Kidd said. "At the same time, there are no funds available to do research."

A member of the Governor's Board of Commissioners of the Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund, Kidd became a paraplegic in 1999 as a result of a motorcycle accident. He blames much of the research funding-shortfall on a misunderstanding of the science.

"We're talking about embryos that are being thrown away because they can't be used," Kidd said. "They can either throw that away or give it to research."

In 2004, California voters authorized up to $3 billion over 10 years for stem cell research. Given the opportunity and a proper understanding, Kidd said, voters in Georgia and other states would support similar measures.

Kidd often visits patients at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he was treated after his accident.

"I'm 60 years old," he said. "I hope I live a lot longer, but when you go to a facility and see 13 year olds who are injured, they're the ones my heart goes out to. Their whole lives are in front of them."

Kidd said another research barrier is that stem cell research can't be done in facilities that receive federal funds.

"If Emory ... or whoever let researchers use their $5 million microscope to do stem cell research, they could lose their Medicare funding," he said.

Science is, by nature, uncertain. Discovery can rarely be predicted, leaving some to ask if stem cell research is giving false hope to sufferers.

"We want to provide hope to patients, but not false hope," Stice said. "I want to give them the best scientific knowledge I have to know what is being done to find hope. I think drugs and other approved treatments will offer that hope even before cell therapy will. There's still a lot of work to be done in all areas."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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