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New discoveries may remove ethical problems in deriving embryonic stem cells

WASHINGTON (BP)–Three teams of researchers have announced in less than three weeks separate discoveries of cells with the apparently potent capabilities of embryonic stem cells without their ethical drawbacks.

The developments seem to undergird the position of opponents of destructive embryonic stem cell research, as well as President Bush’s policy prohibiting federal funds for such experiments. They also appear to undermine the constant drumbeat for funding destructive embryonic research by its proponents, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who revealed his support for liberalizing the president’s restrictive rule only a week before the first discovery was announced.

The recent developments in stem cell research are:

— Harvard University scientists announced they have transformed skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells without the use of human eggs or the creation of embryos, The Washington Post reported Aug. 22.

— A team of Texas and British researchers revealed they have generated what appear to be embryonic stem cells from umbilical cord blood, according to the Aug. 19 issue of the Houston Chronicle.

— University of Pittsburgh scientists said they have discovered embryonic-like stem cells in the placenta, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Aug. 5.

The results have produced cells that appear to share a highly valuable trait that many scientists attribute to embryonic stem cells –- the ability to transform into other cells and tissues in the body. This elasticity, and the hope it has provided for therapies for many diseases, has been a major reason that embryonic stem cell research has gained much more publicity than experiments using non-embryonic stem cells.

Most pro-life advocates are opposed to embryonic stem cell research, because the extraction of cells from an embryo destroys the tiny human being. Taking stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as bone marrow and fat –- normally does not harm the donor.

So far, embryonic stem cells have produced no treatments for human beings, while non-embryonic stem cells have provided therapies for at least 65 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, announced his support of a bill to revise Bush’s policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research July 29, Congress’ final day before entering a five-week recess. Frist endorsed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, which would provide federal funds for experimentation using embryos that are in storage at in vitro fertilization clinics and are donated by the parents.

Bush’s rule allows funding for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence prior to his August 2001 announcement barring funds for all other stem cell experimentation on embryos.

In the research from Harvard, scientists used embryonic stem cells like those approved for federal funds under Bush’s policy to convert a skin cell into an embryonic stem cell, in essence, according to The Post. This conversion of a person’s own cell apparently would greatly reduce the possibility of the rejection of its transplant into the same person, the newspaper reported. The experiments seemingly would still depend on the use of cells from embryos that have been destroyed, however.

There are hurdles to clear in the technique, but if they are overcome, it “may circumvent some of the logistical and societal concerns,” the Harvard team said in an article to be released in Science magazine, The Post reported.

The Texas-British team extracted only a couple of embryonic-like cells among the 50,000 stem cells they procured from umbilical cord blood, but they were able to multiply the embryonic-like cells to produce liver, brain and pancreatic cells, according to the Chronicle.

The Pittsburgh researchers collected amniotic epithelial cells from the placenta’s amnion after childbirth, the Tribune-Review reported. The amnion is a membrane filled with fluid that surrounds the unborn child during pregnancy. Placentas normally are treated as waste after birth.

“If one could take something that is normally thrown away and use it for regenerative medicine, that’s the ultimate in recycling,” Pitt research Stephen Strom said, according to the Tribune-Review. “We’re stupid people who may have been throwing out the baby -– this tremendous source of stem cells –- with the bath water for years and years.”

Privately funded research on embryonic stem cells is legal and ongoing in the United States. The strength of the pro-embryonic stem cell lobby’s claims that such cells have more therapeutic potential has not been evident in the priorities of the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry, which has invested many times more in non-embryonic stem cell research. The federal government also underwrites experimentation on non-embryonic stem cells.

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