"There is a gap between publications from U.S. and non-U.S. groups," said Jennifer McCormick, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. "With the current trajectory, if things don't change, that gap is going to continue." McCormick collaborated on the study with her colleague Jason Owen-Smith, assistant professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan. The paper will be published in the April issue of Nature Biotechnology.
The 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 using existing embryonic stem cell lines. Any research using stem cell lines created after that announcement, or research intended to create much-needed new 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 United States 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 within the United States. Of the 18 countries publishing human embryonic stem cell research, the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom and South Korea had the largest number of research organizations.
When the pair categorized the articles according to whether the researchers were within or outside the United States, they found a clear trend. Human embryonic stem cell research has been accelerating at a faster pace internationally. 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.
The authors argue that 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. "The United States can't allow its technology and scientific strengths to lessen because it will affect competitiveness," McCormick said.
McCormick said the paper doesn't necessarily prove that federal policies are holding back human embryonic stem cell research. However, she added that those policies may be among the factors contributing to the gap between U.S. and international publications in the field. She and Owen-Smith are conducting another study to help clarify how much of the gap is due to U.S. policies.
McCormick also suggested that as more private organizations start funding the work, and as states such as California begin providing grants for the research, U.S. researchers may catch up to their international peers.
"It may be that one thing holding us back is the fact that there are new funding mechanisms that need to ramp up and scientists need to get used to turning to them," she said.
Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical center's Office of Communication & Public Affairs at http://mednews.