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Cell discovery could transform cloning, embryo research debates

WASHINGTON (BP)–The discovery of a stem cell in adults that reportedly has remarkable powers could prove a watershed in the contentious debates over cloning and human embryo research.

A researcher at the University of Minnesota has found a stem cell that “can turn into every single tissue in the body,” according to a report in the latest issue of New Scientist. The cell might be the “most important” ever discovered, according to the report.

A confirmation of the discovery would mean cells from a person’s body “could one day be turned into all sorts of perfectly matched replacement tissues and even organs,” New Scientist reported.

A validation of the finding also would seriously undercut the campaign by some researchers, patients rights groups and politicians for human embryonic stem cell experimentation as well as human cloning for research purposes. Both procedures result in the destruction of the embryos.

“If this discovery proves to be true, this will be genuinely splendid and revolutionary news,” said Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This announcement is a palpable reminder that stem cell research is still in its infancy. We should only pursue research that is scrupulously ethical.”

With this discovery, “there will be no possible justification for destroying human embryos for their cells,” said Mitchell, an associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., the lead sponsor of a Senate attempt to ban both research and reproductive cloning, said in a written release, “As this debate continues, we need to constantly examine and re-examine the scientific facts with a fully informed moral conscience. I am heartened to know that scientific research has proven, once again, that destructive human embryo research and human cloning are unnecessary.”

Christian Medical Association Executive Director David Stevens said in a written statement, “If the remarkable results of this study prove consistent with early published reports, then no reasonable person could justify violating ethical barriers to clone and harvest human embryos for their cells.”

University of Minnesota researcher Catherine Verfaillie discovered the cell in adult bone marrow, and extensive research has been conducted, according to the Jan. 23 New Scientist.

The experiments indicate the cells, called multipotent adult progenitor cells, have the same versatility as embryonic stem cells without at least one drawback. The adult cells can develop into numerous types of tissues — muscle, cartilage, bone and liver — and different types of neurons and brain cells, according to New Scientist. Unlike embryonic cells, they do not appear to form cancerous masses when injected into adults, according to the report.

The report of the discovery came less than a week after the National Academy of Sciences affirmed its earlier recommendation that the cloning of embryos be permitted in order to procure stem cells for research.

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation requiring a comprehensive ban on cloning in February or March. Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., also has signaled he will seek to liberalize the federal government’s policy concerning funding embryonic stem cell research. Specter’s bill would fund research in which embryos are destroyed. It already appeared unlikely to pass the House of Representatives, and the discovery of an adult cell that has the same properties may harm its chances in the Senate.

In August, President Bush announced after months of deliberation he would permit funding for research on the more than 60 lines, or colonies, of existing stem cells “where the life-and-death decision has already been made.” He said the policy would allow research “without crossing a fundamental moral line” of funding the destruction of human embryos.

The Bush administration has reversed National Institutes of Health guidelines implemented under President Clinton that allowed federal funding of research on stem cells after their procurement, which destroys the embryo. Under the Clinton administration’s ruling, such research was legal if the act of deriving the cells were privately funded.

Though the ERLC and other pro-life groups oppose embryonic stem cell research, they support the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow. The procurement of cells from such sources does not harm a human being. Even before the University of Minnesota discovery, studies had demonstrated stem cells from these sources could be effective, although supposedly less versatile than embryonic cells.

The isolation of stem cells for the first time in 1998 provided hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.