Science  09 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5668, pp. 187

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  1. Greenpeace Pans Patent

    Baby dolls frozen in blocks of ice and chanting Greenpeace activists shut down the European Patent Office (EPO) headquarters in Munich earlier this week. Greenpeace was protesting the granting of what the group claims is the first patent ever to cover a human embryo.


    In November, EPO granted a patent to structural biologist Katrina Forest of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and embryologist Michelle Lane, now at the University of Adelaide in Australia, for a new method of “vitrifying,” or flash-cooling, cells. The technique is apparently gentler than conventional methods and is especially useful for sperm, eggs, and embryos. It has already been patented in the United States and more than a dozen other countries and has been licensed to a Swedish-American firm called Vitrolife that supplies reagents to in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. The controversy stems from the fact that the EPO patent claims cover not just the technique but any specimens frozen using the technique—including human embryos.

    Forest, who was surprised to hear of the protests, told Science that she supports Greenpeace's efforts to keep a close eye on patents covering human cells. “Good for them,” she says. “We had no intention of patenting an embryo.” She says the technique is still being tested in human IVF clinics and is not yet on the market. Greenpeace says it plans to challenge the patent.

  2. Canada's New Light Source

    Canadian researchers will soon be able to watch a riveting form of molecular cinema. The Canada Foundation for Innovation last week announced a $16 million grant to build a new Advanced Laser Light Source (ALLS) in Varennes, Quebec. The five-beamline femtosecond laser system will enable scientists to track the behavior of molecules in real time.

    ALLS will enable researchers to study complex molecules that don't crystallize, such as some proteins, says project leader Jean-Claude Kieffer of the Institut National de la Recherché Scientifique, which will host the facility. Overall, the project will involve 72 researchers from 32 universities in nine nations. But don't start the popcorn yet: ALLS isn't due to premier until 2006.

  3. Senators Grill NIH on Grant Size and Stem Cell Policy

    Top officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) faced pointed questions on grant size and stem cell policy last week at a Senate hearing on the agency's 2005 budget request.

    The White House has requested a 2.7% increase to $28.8 billion. That leaves room for a cost-of-living increase of just 1.9%, instead of an expected 3.5%, if the agency wants to hold the number of new and competing grants steady at 10,393, said agency chief Elias Zerhouni. The cut could be avoided, he added, if NIH got an extra $220 million. (House lawmakers, meanwhile, have calculated that $203 million more would do the job.) It will be up to Congress to find those extra funds, however.

    Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) also grilled Zerhouni on whether the Bush Administration should revisit its stem cell policy. Just 17 viable stem cell lines are available to U.S. researchers, Specter noted. “That's not enough, is it?” he asked. Zerhouni didn't reply directly, noting only that “we're learning a lot” from the cells that are available.

  4. Pentagon Weighs New Support for Graduate Training

    The Department of Defense is contemplating a new graduate training program to boost the number of U.S. scientists capable of working in defense-related research areas. “We are close to concluding that it is a very good idea,” says Deputy Undersecretary for Defense John Hopps. “The next step will be to work out the details.”

    The traineeships are being vetted for the 2006 fiscal year budget, which begins in the fall of 2005. The idea has received enthusiastic support from academic members of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which recommended such initiatives in a 2002 report.

    Hopps said that universities would compete for the traineeships, with the number of slots based on the size of the schools' defense-related research budget. The stipends are expected to match the $30,000 awards offered by the National Science Foundation for its flagship research fellowships and traineeships, and they exceed those provided by the National Institutes of Health.