Minding the Stem Cell Gap

U.S. stem cell policy hurts American competitiveness and slows international research. American scientists are forced to work with old, contaminated stem cell lines, while scientists around the world use the latest lines to speed up their work and close the research gap. This restrictive U.S. policy makes collaboration with foreign scientists more difficult and means a large amount of worldwide funding for stem cell research is being used on less useful lines. Updating the American stem cell policy to allow federally funded scientists to use the best research tools would both aid research internationally and improve U.S. competitiveness.

Our restrictive federal stem cell policy hampers international research. Science is a collaborative process; research discoveries by one group of scientists often provide the basis for advances in laboratories around the world. The U.S. is by far the largest funder of stem cell research, spending three times as much as any other country, and state funding in the U.S. also exceeds that of most other countries.

But federal funding goes to only 21 older stem cell lines that are of limited use for research. And our federal policy forces states that want to allow researchers to use newer, federally ineligible stem cell lines to waste resources on new infrastructure and equipment; 86 percent of state funding for stem cell research has gone to building infrastructure, purchasing equipment, and training scientists, not to actual research.

The federal stem cell policy also makes it difficult for other countries to collaborate with the United States, because their scientists are working with newer lines that are ineligible for our federal funding. Home to the top facilities in the world, the U.S. has traditionally been an important research hub. Yet restrictive federal policies make international scientists less eager to work with federally funded scientists, even though there is greater available funding from the National Institutes of Health. The international community recognizes the damage that the U.S. policy causes to international efforts. The International Society for Stem Cell Research strongly supported recent legislation that President Bush vetoed that would have allowed federal funding for research using newer stem cell lines.

The U.K., which frequently collaborates with the U.S., has even bypassed the federal government in favor of forming ties with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the body that oversees stem cell research in the state. Prime Minister Blair is interested in working with CIRM because he thinks the U.K. can more effectively collaborate with California scientists than researchers who receive only federal funding, and because he believes he can lure private U.S. stem cell firms to Britain. The U.S. stem cell policy has relegated the federal government to second place status in its own country.

While the U.S. lags, others countries are rushing to fill the research gap. The number of stem cell publications by U.S. researchers decreased from roughly 33 percent to around 25 percent between 2002 and 2004. Sensing an opportunity, other countries have begun to focus strongly on supporting stem cell research; the U.S. greatly outspends the U.K. on stem cell research in total dollars, but the U. K. devotes a larger percentage of its overall bioscience funding to stem cells. These countries also have created more progressive stem cell policies that support research using a wide variety of stem cell lines.

Singapore, a country with a much smaller national budget than the U.S., has taken substantial steps to support stem cell research. The country has built a $300 million biomedical research facility called the Biopolis, has announced that it will spend $7.5 billion on biomedical research over the next five years, and is actively courting U.S. stem cell researchers. This support has paid off; the Biopolis has already attracted major U.S. stem cell researchers from the National Cancer Institute, MIT, and the University of California. A biotech company in Singapore was also the first to announce the derivation of stem cell lines that meet clinical use standards for humans, a breakthrough that promises to speed up research and be quite profitable.

The U.S. is losing ground in stem cell research, but the outlook is not wholly grim. America still outspends other countries on research, and has a research infrastructure that is the most effective in the world at transforming new discoveries into clinical applications. Yet the U.S. must act quickly to support stem cell research on par with international competitors. The biggest threat is not just that current research and collaborative efforts with other countries will be hampered, but also that potential future American stem cell researchers will be discouraged from entering the field, leading to a far greater stem cell research gap in the future. A rising tide lifts all laboratories, but if the U.S. does not update its stem cell policy soon, it may miss the boat.

To see a comparison of the infrastructure and regulation of stem cell research in the U.S. and U.K., see: