The government Friday awarded its first grants for embryonic stem cell research since President Bush gave approval for limited federal funding.

The $3.5 million given to four institutions will help them make stem cell lines available to researchers worldwide and train them how to handle and reproduce the cells, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Friday.

Bush said last summer he would allow federal funding for research on certain embryonic stem cell lines, or cell colonies.

The grants from the National Institutes of Health were awarded to Cellsaurus, a subsidiary of Bresagen of Athens, Ga.; ES Cell International Pte Ltd. of Melbourne, Australia; the University of California, San Francisco; and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in Madison.

Embryonic stem cells are the basic building blocks of the body. They form within days of conception and are the ancestral cells from which all of the organs and others cells develop.

Scientists believe that research could lead to using the cells to replace or restore failing organs, treating such conditions as heart disease, spinal injury, diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

The use of embryonic stem cells is controversial because extracting the cells kills a living human embryo.

Last summer, Bush struck a middle ground, saying federal money could support this research but only on stem cell colonies in existence on Aug. 9, the date of his speech.

The four institutions who were given grants Friday have 17 of the 78 stem cell colonies eligible for funding.

Thompson, who made the announcement at a Madison biotechnology company, said more grants would be awarded in the coming months.

"It is in keeping with the president's vision and my own personal commitment," Thompson said. "We must do the research in the ethical framework laid out by the president."