NUMed Center cuts use of fetal cell tissue
The Associated Press
University of Nebraska Medical Center scientists are hoping a two-thirds reduction in use of fetal-cell brain tissue from elective abortions in research will end public criticism of their work.

An October report to the Medical Center's institutional review board showed a 65 percent reduction in fetal-cell use since 2000 at Dr. Howard Gendelman's NU Center for Neurovirology and Neurodegenerative Disorders. The center focuses on progressive neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

``It's time to come together as a community and decide, `Is this enough?' " Gendelman said. ``We're certainly ready to progress to the next level, but we need to resolve this issue with the community.''

Some Medical Center scientists no longer are using fetal cells, and others are using them for the last moment, when research in mice requires final verification.

A research coordinator said fetal cells probably are being used, on average, once a month instead of every other week.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Johanns called the reduction ``a very positive step.'' Johanns opposes fetal-cell research.

The financial and scientific success of Gendelman's center is a dilemma for the Medical Center. It receives direct financial benefits from every grant Gendelman wins, including an estimated $6 million in federal funding expected next year.

But Medical Center leaders worry they will lose state funding if Gendelman's center becomes too much of a focus. Nebraska legislators, for example, committed $10 million a year from a tobacco lawsuit settlement for medical research but specifically excluded fetal-tissue research.

Gendelman said his scientists needed job stability before they could expand their work. Clinical trials may be sought in the next few years, but he said they won't start such trials unless they know they will be able to finish them.

Gendelman's center now has more than 60 workers and uses much of the available space in Swanson Hall, one of the campus's oldest buildings. Gendelman said his team could grow beyond the building's space because it may add 20 to 30 people next year.

UNMC Vice Chancellor for Research Tom Rosenquist said space in a new 11-story building will be made available to researchers from Gendelman's center, but not if they work with fetal cells. That decision, he said, was made to avoid offending state officials or research center donors -- if any of them oppose fetal-cell research.

The reduction of fetal-cell use largely can be credited to development of a rapid-autopsy program, which the center has used to obtain two of three types of brain cells needed for research. The autopsies are done on adults who consent before their deaths.

Given available scientific knowledge, however, Gendelman's center can't reduce use of fetal cells any further and maintain its current pace of research, said Dr. Anuja Ghorpade, who manages the rapid-autopsy program.

The researchers have been unable so far to collect neurons from rapid autopsies. Neurons are the so-called thinking cells of the brain. Understanding the impact of other cells on those neurons is one need of the research.

Gendelman said his center could survive a ban on fetal-cell use if the center could send for help out of state when tests using those cells are needed. But he believes that would create logistics hurdles and other frustrations that could lead him and some of his scientists to leave.