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Contract's end means changes for stem cell scene

Signe Brewster, The Badger Herald News, March 3, 2010

In 2005 WiCell, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of Wisconsin was charged with creating and maintaining a national embryonic stem cell bank supported by the Federal Government.  At that time the 21 embryonic stem cell lines that were approved by former president George W. Bush's administration were made available for researchers.  The importance of this stem cell bank was two-fold: firstly to provide a consistent and reproducible source of cells for experimentation that scientists across the nation could use and compare results; and secondly to reduce costs of accessing the stem cells.  Usually they would cost tens of thousands of dollars, however thanks to WiCell they were made available for approximately $500 for academic use. 

Since creation of the bank, the nature of embryonic stem cell research has markedly changed.  In particular, the July 2009 order issued by President Barack Obama to allow federal funding for stem cells other than the original 21 cell lines has stimulated expansion into the cells available for research.  Last week the contract that formed WiCell's National Stem Cell Bank expired and a new bank called Wisconsin International Stem Cell (WISC) Bank was formed.  This bank offers not only the original 21 cell lines but also several newer types of embryonic stem cells, as well as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). 

This new type of stem cell has attracted much publicity because it is derived from non-embryonic sources but seems to have identical characteristics to embryonic stem cells.  Particularly, iPS cells can become all tissues of the body, in the same way that embryonic stem cells can, and additionally, these cells are capable of forming tumors when injected in mice.  Tumor formation in animals is a defining characteristic of embryonic stem cells. 

Janet Kelly a representative from WiCell said under WISC Bank, lines now cost $1,000.

"Without a national bank or provision for the NIH to fund any type of stem cell bank, it will be challenging for researchers to obtain stem cells that are thoroughly tested and meet high standards for quality assurance in a reliable and efficient manner," Kelly said in an e-mail to the Badger Herald. "Researchers already are confused about how to obtain the newly approved cell lines and many of the originators of these lines do not want to operate a distribution service."

Despite the fact that the WISC bank is not federally funded, Erik Forsberg, executive director of WiCell believes that business will flourish.  "In some ways you could view it as a setback, but the reputation is so well-established I think in the long run it won't have a big effect," Forsberg said. "It certainly helps to have the connections with the U.S. government or the national stem cell bank, but because we have stem cell lines all over the world, I think the reputation will remain."

For more information on iPS cells, you can watch the video at

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