Science  01 Mar 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5560, pp. 1619

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  1. Debate Down Under

    Australian researchers were astonished this week by press reports that the government was considering new limits on stem cell research. The Melbourne broadsheet The Age reported on 26 February that senior ministers had agreed “in principle” to bar scientists from harvesting stem cells from embryos destined to be destroyed by in vitro fertilization clinics–prompting howls of protest from researchers and a hasty retreat by government officials.

    Researchers said the reversal would imperil Australia's position as world leader in stem cell studies. Its scientists were among the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells, and they have produced 10 of the 73 cell lines approved by the National Institutes of Health for use by taxpayer-funded researchers in the United States. Prospects looked bright after the government spent heavily on a new tissue research center and a parliamentary panel last year recommended against restrictions.

    So there was an instant uproar upon reports that the head of that panel, Minister of Ageing Kevin Andrews, had broken ranks and convinced a majority of ministers to support embryo restrictions. Andrews quickly issued a statement denying that the government had reached a decision. Still, researchers are wary. Says Martin Pera of Melbourne's Monash University: “We hope there's less to this than meets the eye.”

  2. Fish Fight

    South African ichthyologists are protesting a government decision to strip the name of a famous fish scientist from a prominent research center. The J. L. B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology in Grahamstown was named after the scientist who described the rediscovered coelacanth in 1938. But last year, government officials rechristened it the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, saying the new name would better reflect the institute's broader future mission.

    Several institute scientists, however, are challenging what they call the “undemocratic” erasure of Smith's legacy. The name change is a “political ploy of dubious worth,” ichthyologists Eric Anderson and Phil Heemstra charge in a recent open letter to members of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists—if only because budget constraints mean the institute will remain focused on fish for the foreseeable future. Institute officials weren't available for comment, but Anderson is hoping that international pressure will convince them to restore Smith's name to prominence, perhaps as part of the titles of journals published by the institute.

  3. Patent Fight, Round 2

    French, Belgian, and Dutch groups are opposing the second of three European patents awarded last year to an American biotech company for a breast cancer test. The test, marketed by Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City, Utah, detects mutations in the BRCA1 gene, which are responsible for more than half of all hereditary breast cancers. Opponents argue that the patents are too broad and would block the development of alternative tests. The challenge, filed with the European Patent Office in Munich on 22 February, is supported by the governments of the three countries.


    Last fall, many of the same organizations—including the Curie Institute in Paris and Belgian and Dutch human genetics societies—filed a challenge to the first patent, which covers use of the gene's sequence to create diagnostic tests (Science, 14 September 2001, p. 1971). The second patent covers a list of specific mutations in BRCA1 implicated in breast and ovarian cancers. The patents give Myriad “a monopoly on genetic testing anywhere and anyhow,” says molecular geneticist Dicky Halley of Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Greenpeace protesters hung a banner on the patent office in Munich (above).

    Myriad officials were not available for comment, but they have said that the patents are justified.

  4. Loka Lucre

    Supporters of the Loka Institute are scrambling to save the nonprofit organization from a severe cash crunch. Founded in 1987, the Amherst, Massachusetts-based Loka is devoted to increasing grassroots involvement in science and technology. It has pioneered the U.S. use of “science shops,” workshops designed to address local issues and attract input from community groups.

    But executive director Jill Chopyak resigned last month, and the funding climate for nonprofits “has been brutal,” according to a recent board statement, forcing the group to suspend operations.

    Still, Chopyak believes the problems won't be “the death of Loka. The board is really committed to expanding the donor base.” Directors say they want to raise $100,000 by 1 August. For the time being, Khan Rahi, who coordinates Loka's Community Research Network, will oversee the institute.