Panel cites need for more stem cell lines

WASHINGTON -- Public funding of embryonic stem cell research is the best way to speed new medical breakthroughs, but it will take work on more than just the 64 colonies of cells President Bush is allowing, says a report by one of the nation's most influential scientific groups.

Also, researchers should aggressively pursue a related technique known as therapeutic cloning, in which a person's genes might one day be used to grow his or her own stem cells for customized therapy, says the report by the National Academy of Sciences.

But because embryonic stem cell research raises ethical questions, the National Institutes of Health should create a special advisory group to oversee it, much as an NIH committee oversees research into gene therapy, says the report issued Tuesday.

Chartered by Congress

The National Academy of Sciences is an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters. Thus the report is expected to generate new debate about Bush's policy on stem cells.

"Given the promise of stem cell research for treating and perhaps curing a variety of debilitating diseases, our committee felt strongly that research not be limited," said report co-author Dr. Bert Vogelstein, an oncology professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Stem cells are the basic building blocks of the body's parts. The most flexible stem cells are derived from days-old embryos, but some stem cells also can be found in adult tissue. Scientists are trying to learn how to coax the cells to grow into healthy tissue that might, one day, allow them to repair ailing hearts, livers, brains and other organs.

Most existing colonies, or lines, of embryonic stem cells were culled from embryos left over at infertility clinics, embryos that otherwise would have been thrown away. Because culling the stem cells destroys the embryo, however, the science has generated ethical questions.

Last month, Bush ordered that federal money be used only for research on cell lines that already exist, not on any new ones. Administration officials claim 64 lines around the world meet that definition, although many scientists contend not all 64 are developed fully enough to be sure even that they are the kind of stem cells necessary for research.