NIH stem cell chief resigns

The move, caused by frustration with US stem cell policy, may bode poorly for the future of American efforts in this field, experts say

By | April 21, 2006

Mahendra S. Rao, head of the stem cell group at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has resigned his government post to join Invitrogen Corp, saying the US ban on federal funding of new embryonic stem (ES) cell lines posed a formidable barrier to his research goals. The move prompted speculation about the future of the US ES cell research, with some making dire predictions. "It is very disappointing when any scientist feels that they must leave the NIH because of politically driven restrictions on important medical research," Lawrence Goldstein at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, told The Scientist. "It bodes ill for our country's leadership in important areas of scientific research and sends a very negative message to scientists and to patients who depend upon our scientists to make progress on new understanding and treatments for terrible diseases." As vice president of research for Invitrogen, Rao now leads the company's newly formed stem cell and regenerative medicine business. In announcing the appointment earlier this month, Claude Benchimol, Invitrogen's senior vice president of research and development, said in a statement that Rao's leadership would "enable our company's technology portfolio to grow and adapt as stem cell therapies become more prevalent in modern medicine." Rao, who joined the NIA as a senior investigator in 2001, has spent the past several months winding down his lab in Baltimore, Md. Rao told The Scientist the agency has decided that it will no longer work on embryonic stem cells, but an NIA spokeswoman would only say that the agency is "assessing its research needs and is seeking another talented investigator to contribute to the broad interests of this program, as is typical in the departure and hiring of any scientific staff." The departure sparked debate over whether Rao's absence at NIA is indicative of a broader erosion of stem cell research efforts in the United States. "I'm optimistic that the NIH will continue to work in the stem cell field," said one NIH scientist, who declined be identified. Rao, however, told The Scientist he believed that the county is poised to lose its leadership position, a sentiment shared by some stem cell research advocates. "The refusal to fund new embryonic stem cell lines -- or even allow any working with them by NIH or other federal agencies -- definitely is having an impact on the pace of U.S. embryonic stem cell science, and shifting the comparative advantage elsewhere," said John A. Robertson, at the University of Texas School of Law at Austin and chair of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine's ethics committee. Recent funding cuts for the NIH "contribute to a very poor environment for biomedical research in the United States at present," he added. Rao said he had "strong hopes" of affecting policy change from within government. "After all," he reasoned, "the policy was a temporary policy, which would be evaluated as changes occurred." In a 2005 study published in Nature Genetics, Rao and his colleagues showed that human embryonic stem cells accrue changes in their genomes that could make them unusable therapeutically when cultured at length. It was strong evidence, he believed, that the policy should be modified, at least to replace existing cell lines. He took the data to the NIH stem cell steering committee, whose members, he said, were quite supportive of the science. "I have no complaints with the NIH on that front, but the bottom line was they didn't feel that this would be sufficient," Rao said. "And, unfortunately, it didn't seem to me that the policy was going to change in the next couple of years." Karen Pallarito Links within this article Mahendra Rao Invitrogen Lawrence Goldstein E. Hitt, "Convenient embryonic stem cell expansion," The Scientist, September 27, 2004. American Society of Reproductive Medicine A.Maitra, et al, "Genomic alterations in cultured human embryonic stem cells," Nature Genetics, October 2005. PM_ID: 16142235 C. Choi, "Embryonic stem cell lines unstable," The Scientist, September 6, 2005.

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