WASHINGTON -- Federal rules limiting research on embryonic stem cells are hampering efforts to find new treatments for conditions ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries, a panel of scientists complained.
"The existing restrictions are keeping advances from being realized," Dr. George Daley of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services.
President Bush, citing ethical considerations, last year limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to 78 already existing lines of cells.
But Daley said Wednesday that far fewer cell lines are actually available for study, "perhaps only a handful."
Gaining access to those limited cell lines has been inordinately difficult, several researchers complained, citing costs, problems negotiating agreements with the cells' owners and restrictions imposed by governments of foreign countries, where many of the cells are located.
Responding to the complaints, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, said his agency is "diligently working with as many sources as we can to make more cell lines available."
Stem cells form very early in an embryo's development and later differentiate into numerous types of cells to form various organs and other parts of the body. Researchers hope to use these cells to repair damaged organs and cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Opponents of such research say it is unethical because the 5-day-old embryo dies when the cells are removed.
Research is also under way on stem cells found in adults, but in recent studies at Stanford University adult blood stem cells were unable to transform into other types of tissue cells, raising doubts about their value.
Dr. Curt Civin of Johns Hopkins University told of months of negotiations with the owners of cell lines in India, only to have the Indian government step in and ban export of the cells.
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