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Updated 10:00 AM April 10, 2006




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U.S. falling behind in embryonic stem cell research

The fear that United States researchers might lose ground to their international counterparts in human embryonic stem cell research now appears to have become fact.

A study co-authored by researchers at U-M and the Stanford University School of Medicine documents that stem cell researchers in other countries have begun to out-publish U.S. scientists.

"There is a gap between publications from U.S. and non-U.S. groups," says Jennifer McCormick, a postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics who recently completed her doctorate at U-M. "With the current trajectory, if things don't change that gap is going to continue."

McCormick collaborated on the study with Jason Owen-Smith, assistant professor of sociology and organizational studies at U-M.

Concerns about the U.S. role in embryonic stem cell research have their roots in President Bush's August 2001 announcement that federal grants could only fund research that uses existing embryonic stem cell lines. Any research using stem cell lines created after that announcement, or research intended to create new stem cell lines, must be paid for with nonfederal funds.

Other countries have taken a patchwork approach to regulating this field, with the United Kingdom and South Korea specifically encouraging embryonic stem cell research. McCormick and Owen-Smith wanted to find out whether the fears that U.S. would fall behind other countries in embryonic stem cell research were becoming a reality.

The pair found 132 published articles between November 1998 and December 2004 that relied on human embryonic stem cells. The publications came from 97 research organizations, 45 percent of which were in the United States. Of the 18 countries publishing human embryonic stem cell research, the United States, Israel, United Kingdom and South Korea had the largest number of research organizations.

When McCormick and Owen-Smith categorized the articles according to origin, they found a clear trend. In 2002, of the 10 published articles involving human embryonic stem cells, roughly one-third were from U.S. research groups. By 2004, U.S. groups accounted for only one-quarter of the 77 publications.

This decline is a concern, given that the biotechnology industry relies on new research breakthroughs and technologies to stay competitive, Owen-Smith says.

The authors argue because stem cell discoveries could become therapeutically useful, American companies and patients may be at a disadvantage if the research breakthroughs happen outside the country.

McCormick says the paper doesn't necessarily prove that federal policies are holding back human embryonic stem cell research. She adds, however, that those policies may be among the factors contributing to the gap between U.S. and international publications in the field.

The paper, "An international gap in human ES cell research" appears in the April issue of Nature Biotechnology and was funded by U-M's Office of the Vice President for Research, the dean of LSA, and the Life Sciences and Society Program.

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