Famed stem cell researchers face battle for funds

Embryonic stem cell

Embryonic stem cell research is seen by many to hold answers to problems like Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. Last year, Petr Dvorak's team at the Mendel University of Agriculture and Forestry in Brno isolated a new line of embryonic stem cells. However, after putting the Czech Republic on the map in molecular biology, the famous lab might be closing down at the year's end. Mark Fernandes spoke to Petr Dvorak and his fellow reseacher Ales Hampl about the future of embryonic stem cells in the Czech Republic.

Last year, Petr Dvorak's lab at the Mendel University of Agriculture and Forestry, exploded, onto the international scene with his breakthrough in embryonic stemcell lines or ESLs.

Dvorak's team had isolated a new ESL line. With a shoestring budget and handful of researchers, Dvorak had almost done the impossible. He had established the Czech Republic as a leader in a new field of research.

"Scientists never had such a beautiful model for studying human development because we have cells which are really embryonic, and we can use them for different experiments showing us whats going on in different stages of human development."

His research partner Ales Hampl explains that ESLs are not only good models of invetro development, but they could offer insight into many different areas.

"Certainly, what people would like the most is using those embryonic stem cells for therapy -- Parkinson's disease or diabetes or spinal cord injuries are those major expectations from human embryonic stem cells."

Dvorak recently gave lectures at Bostons Harvard Medical School. He even hobnobbed with the preeminent scientist Dr. Ole Isacson about future collaboration in treatments for Parkinson's disease. Considering that his lab has derived nearly ten per cent of ESL lines known world-wide, one would think that this is just the beginning of his success here. However, despite the notoriety this ESL lab is months away from closing shop. Dvorak explains,

Dvorak's lab has 75 thousand dollar budget this year. A paltry amount considering the Harvard has a budget in excess of 100 million dollars from private biotech firms. Despite being under funded the Brno lab is still a respected place of research. Hampl explains the impact of their lab work with human ESLs.

"It was a major breakthrough for the Czech Republic, we established the first human embryonic stem cells in Czech Republic and the first in Europe in general. I think a major effort has been done here in Brno in understanding the biology and towards using human embryonic stem cells in practical life."

The main hurdles for ESL research are not only funding, but ethical hurdles as well. This is because it uses human embryos.

In the US, the Bush administration has moral issues about using human embryoes for research and does not fund it. Germany and Austria also do not have any state-funded research on embryonic stem cells. However, the Czech Republic has no ethical objections. Dvorak's lab has benefited from an open-minded socitey and its close ties with a near-by In Vetro Fertilization clinic. Hampl explains,

Ales Hampl
"We got lucky we got involved in a friendship with people from IVF clinic which is basically next door to our department. Those people helped us to talk to couples that were undergoing treatment for reproductive problems. They talked to those people and we figured out that over 90 per cent of those couples were willing to donate embryoes for scientifc research."

Embryonic stem cells are taken from a microscopic embryo in its first few days of development. These cells are dynamic enough to develop into any part of the human body, as well as, provide insight into ailments like Parkinson's disease and diabetes. Let's go into Dvorak's lab to see how it all works.

Inside this tightly-sealed room, which is seperated by glass, Dvorak and Hampl do their delicate work.

"The air inside is absolutely clear without any contamination."

"What kinds of things can compromise the stem cells? "

"Just about everything you can imagine. Every single wrong manipulation can kill them."

"So we had almost one hundred embryos last year and we derived 14 cell lines and we lost seven. We have now seven lines in culture. "

"We share that space with some other labratories that are working on different topics. Those are not even animal people, they work with plants. This is one of the general molecular biology labratories there are some doctoral students here."

If the funding problems continue this could mean the Dvorak and Hampl will be going elsewhere, possibly Britain where there the first public stem cell bank was recently created. Hampl says that they both are more pessimistic by the day and regularly discuss going abroad, which would be a major blow to Czech science.

"I don't think that the Czech government really realises what we are having in hands. Its very bad to say, but we would definitely like somebody form Prague to tell us whether or not we should proceed with that research or quit."