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Senate to examine stem cell lines

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Unit

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Congress wants to know where the 60 human embryonic stem cell lines that can be used for federally funded research are coming from.

Ten days ago, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, sent a letter to the acting director of the National Institutes of Health asking for specific details -- by Friday -- about the 60 stem lines that President Bush referred to when he announced his decision that only those lines could be used in federally funded research.

Since Bush's August 9 announcement, there have been questions of exactly how many lines there are.

Kennedy's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on stem cell research on September 5. He wants the details about the cell lines before he convenes the hearing.

Kennedy requested the names of the research groups who have human embryonic stem cell lines, information on where their research has been published, and details about proprietary rights and what ethical standards were used when the stem cells were derived.

"We expect to have all the information detailed in the letter by early next week," said Kennedy spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.

One stem cell researcher told CNN Friday that the NIH will soon publish who has the stem cell lines and how many lines each company or university has.

"The NIH is definite about it," said Dr. Joseph Itskovitz, a stem cell researcher from Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. "They say they'll have a list today or tomorrow and that they're closing the list today."

A spokesman for the NIH told CNN they have not set a date for releasing the registry.

Itskovitz, who has five stem cells lines and stem cells from four lines derived by James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said he will meet with NIH officials in Washington next week.

Allan Robins, senior vice president and chief science officer of BresaGen, an Australian company that has four stem cell lines, said he met with NIH officials in Washington two days ago.

"It seems unlikely that 60 stem cell lines will be on the NIH registry right away," he said, "but they will be on it over the next couple of months, which is much sooner than we anticipated."

Robins said the NIH and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson are working hard to move human embryonic stem cell research forward now that they can allocate federal funds towards the research.

After Bush made his announcement, some officials suggested there might be more than 60 lines. But several scientists have disputed that, saying the number of stem cell lines derived before the president's announcement was probably closer to a dozen.

Itskovitz, however, told CNN he believes there are 60 stem cell lines.

Embryonic stem cells are "blank" or undifferentiated cells that can develop into any type of cell in the body. Researchers hope to turn stem cells into specific cells, such as heart or liver or nerve cells.

Scientists hope human embryonic stem cell research will lead to treatments and cures for many diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries.

CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report

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