'Sand into discovery's engine'

Stem cell labs, dashed by ruling, may look again to private donors

The National Institutes of Health said yesterday it will not award new grants or renew existing ones for research on human embryonic stem cells after a federal judge temporarily halted the Obama administration's expansion of federal funding for this research.

But scientists who have already received federal money, including Harvard Stem Cell Institute researchers, can continue their work on these cells, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH. The agency has awarded $131 million this year for human embryonic stem cell research.

The Justice Department said yesterday it will appeal the injunction issued Monday by a federal judge in Washington. Collins said that if the decision stands, it puts in jeopardy a fast-moving area of science that offers potential treatments for spinal cord injury, diabetes, and Parkinson's disease, as well as help in screening new drugs.

"This decision has just poured sand into this engine of discovery," he said during a conference call with reporters.

Scientists across Boston and Cambridge were surprised and discouraged by the injunction, and were still grappling yesterday with how to proceed in their own labs — in the coming weeks and in the longer term.

Before March 2009, when President Obama expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, scientists like those at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute depended on private philanthropy to support their work and maintained dual sets of equipment and supplies to ensure that no federal funds were used on human embryonic stem cell research.

Since the institute was initiated in 2004, it has raised about $90 million in private funding, according to spokesman B.D. Colen. Since federal funding for the research was expanded, about $5.6 million in federal grants to support human embryonic stem cell research have been awarded to Harvard scientists — not including researchers affiliated with hospitals.

"This for me emphasizes just how important private philanthropy has been and will continue to be — it's the only durable and consistent source" of funding, said Douglas Melton, codirector of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, who said he has two grants he was preparing to submit to NIH and two active federal grants supporting human embryonic stem cell research in his lab. "We're on this seesaw."

One of the two scientists at the center of the lawsuit has long been an outspoken critic of human embryonic stem cell research and a controversial figure in the Boston scientific community.

Dr. James L. Sherley, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Watertown, has authored letters and opinion pieces critical of human embryonic stem cell research.

"Human embryonic stem cell scientists . . . have somehow convinced themselves that their research is the only worthwhile approach to new disease therapies and that they can ignore public concerns regarding the morality of their work," Sherley wrote in a 2005 letter to the editor published in the Globe. "Yet, adult stem cell research is a viable alternative to human embryonic stem cell research."

Sherley and a second scientist, Theresa Deisher of Seattle, assert in their suit that they would be harmed by increased competition for federal grants created by the new stem cell funding rules. Steven H. Aden, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a cocounsel in the suit, said Sherley would not be available to comment. He called Sherley and Deisher "well-known leaders in the field of adult stem cell research."

But other scientists said Sherley has an unimpressive record by the standards in which scientists are often judged, the number, quality, and impact of scientific publications. According to PubMed, a public database of scientific work, his last scientific papers were published in 2008.

"Most of the way that scientists are measured is by their contributions to the scientific literature, and their thought-leading discoveries. It would be unlikely you would list Dr. Sherley in the category of those who have been either particularly productive or exemplary in terms of new ways of thinking about adult stem cells," said Dr. David Scadden, a scientist with Massachusetts General Hospital and codirector of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, said he has known Sherley for many years. He described Sherley as friendly, easygoing, and willing to take on tough problems.

"He's generally mild-mannered — unless you get him on one of these topics," Church said.

Sherley attracted widespread attention in 2007, when he went on a 12-day hunger strike and alleged that racism played a role in his not receiving tenure at MIT.

A detailed letter published in the MIT Faculty Newsletter and signed by members of the MIT biological engineering division faculty said that in his case as in all tenure cases, faculty reviewed Sherley's publications. In the period at MIT prior to tenure, the letter states, Sherley had six peer-reviewed publications describing original research, and in only half of them was he or a member of his lab listed as one of the main authors.

Also, "the external letters from experts in the field of stem cell biology were not strong enough to support a positive tenure decision" in the department, the letter said.

Grants, which are another measure faculty use to evaluate candidates for tenure, were also examined, according to the letter.

Sherley claimed that his research was funded with $747,000 per year, but the faculty said his research was supported by $1.5 million over six years and four months, and that about $1 million of that funding came from grants in which a colleague at MIT was the principal investigator and did not include Sherley in the original grant application.

After the tenure decision was made, Sherley received an NIH director's Pioneer Award, which the agency's website says is awarded to scientists with highly innovative approaches.

(Published by Boston - August 25, 2010)



Read more

8/24/2010 - U.S. judge rules against Obama's stem cell policy - Click here.

10/29/2009 - Federal judge dismisses stem cell research funding challenge - Click here. 

4/11/2008 - Germany eases law on stem cells - Click here.

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