A Wisconsin-based research group will run the nation's first embryonic stem cell (search) bank under a four-year, $16 million federal contract, officials announced Monday.

The WiCell Research Institute (search), a nonprofit set up in 1999 to support stem cell research at the University of Wisconsin (search), will store and distribute the cells under a federal plan to reduce their cost.

"At a minimum, we will be a single portal so people can do one-stop shopping" for stem cells, said Carl Gulbrandsen, president of WiCell's board of directors.

In 2001, President Bush limited federal grant funding to projects involving 78 lines of embryonic stem cells that already were in existence, saying taxpayer dollars should not fund the destruction of human embryos. That policy has stifled the field, researchers say, and only 22 lines are now available for use.

The goal of the bank is to consolidate all lines of embryonic stem cells available for use in federally funded studies into one place, reducing the cost of the cells while allowing researchers to learn more about their properties.

"This resource will enable us to fully analyze, characterize and control the quality of approved cell lines," said Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (search).

NIH did not release the names of competitors for the contract, but UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley said no other school had the research infrastructure needed to run the bank.

WiCell already has the right to distribute five lines developed at the school and has an agreement to distribute six lines held by Singapore-based ES Cell International (search) to U.S. researchers, said Derek Hei, a UW-Madison scientist who helped land the contract.

WiCell is trying to reach similar deals for the 11 other lines, which are in California, Georgia, Sweden, Korea and Israel.

Stem cells are created in the first days after conception and go on to form the body's tissues and cells. Researchers hope to use stem cells as replacements for diseased and injured body parts. But critics oppose the research because days-old embryos are destroyed, usually after being donated by fertility clinics.