January 29, 2006
Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Labs Very Isolated

Harvard University has raised money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, alumni, and other sources to create the Harvard Stem Cell Institute which does embryonic stem cell research. Douglas Melton, a Harvard professor who does impressive stem cell research (see here and here for example), has a lab in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and recently spoke to the New York Times about the legal barriers between his lab and the bulk of biomedical researchers at Harvard and other research centers.

Q. How exactly has President Bush's ban on federal financing for most embryonic stem cell study affected your research?

A. It made it more difficult, to say the least. Long before Bush's speech, we had planned stem cell experiments. Afterward, we were able to go forward because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association and Harvard alumni provided private funding.

However, because of administration policy, we had to set up this whole new laboratory that was separate from everything else here at Harvard.

And we had to separate the money in a really scrupulous way. We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research. We have separate everything - light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.

This can be burdensome. Most of the activities at this university receive federal money in some indirect way. So you have to ask yourself, "How can you do the research without any imprint of federal funding?"

And we're not just talking about equipment and real estate; it's people. Let's suppose there's a graduate student who's receiving a federally funded fellowship, can he or she participate in thinking about this research or even look at the data? The answer is no.

In order to keep out researchers who receive federal funds Melton's lab requires a card and access code to enter. On the one hand, at least it is possible to set up labs that operate outside of the restrictions set on federal funding. The private realm still exists. On the other hand, the private realm has got to keep out the public realm using security cards. The default assumption is that government regulations and the government's domain apply at universities. The stem cell research debate aside, I find that troubling.

Melton argues that progress can not be made without a community of researchers. He points out that current regulations so isolate him from the vast bulk of researchers that the advantages that come from sharing ideas are greatly reduced. The 2004 passage of a California ballot initiative to fund stem cell research effectively is going to cause the creation of more isolated buildings on California university campuses where researchers work totally with non-federal funding. But these labs will at least be able to collaborate with each other. Effectively the federal regulations on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research combined with state and private funding are leading to the creation of a smaller parallel system of research labs.

My expectation is that this is the new status quo on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) research in the United States. We'll have a group of isolated human embryonic stem cell labs working away on human pluripotent stem cells derived from hESC for years to come. Eventually the barrier between these researchers and the rest of biomedical research community will break down due to one of two reasons: A) research advances will lead to ways to make pluripotent stem cells without using an egg as a starting point or B) the value of hESC for producing therapies will become so clear to the public at large that a large majority will decide that their ethical reservations aren't all that deep and that it is in their own self interest to accept therapies made from embryonic stem cells.

I expect option A to happen years before option B. But I'm not certain on that point. Possibly the small number of human embryonic stem cell labs will fairly quickly develop an effective therapy using hESC that public attitudes will shift. Possibly the problem of how to turn more differentiated cells into much less differentiated and ultimately pluripotent cells will take a decade or longer to solve. But a larger number of labs will be funded to work on the problem of how to produce pluripotent stem cells without using embryos as compared to the number of labs that will work on hESC.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 29 09:47 PM  Bioethics Debate

Jake said at January 30, 2006 7:38 AM:

Harvard has no shame. Crying poor me when they are sitting on an endowment of $20 billion that increases 5% a year.

In the meantime they continue to raise their tuition every year and their students remain in debt for much of their lives.

Harvard's greed is criminal.

Jody said at January 30, 2006 9:42 AM:

Doesn't sound any worse than ITAR restrictions to me.

Fly said at January 30, 2006 1:01 PM:

“In order to keep out researchers who receive federal funds Melton's lab requires a card and access code to enter.”

I wonder if there isn’t another unstated reason. Perhaps they also fear pressure ranging from demonstrations and work disruption to physical attacks from those who oppose such research.

“Effectively the federal regulations on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research combined with state and private funding are leading to the creation of a smaller parallel system of research labs.”

The labs may be physically isolated but I doubt that information flow will be significantly hampered. (Researchers delaying publishing for their own self-interest is more likely to hinder the free exchange of information.)

Randall Parker said at January 30, 2006 3:44 PM:


The problem is not Harvard, the problem is their donors. Why do donors donate money to just have it sit in the bank? They could donate the money to have it spent right now on research or other activities that provide immediate benefit.

simon said at January 31, 2006 6:34 PM:

I concur with Jake. SHAME on Harvard for crying poor. They have a HUGE endowment. As one who is faimilar with the budgeting process it is the University sets the tone for how much to spend, not the donors. Donors follow.

The silver lining in this story is that we are seeing contrary to all the rhetoric initially offered that stem cell research is far mor diverse than the embryonic focused researhers suggested.

Again shame on Harvard.

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