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Stem cell breakthrough could make ethical debate moot

WASHINGTON (BP)–A bill that would drastically expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been re-introduced in the Senate, but British and Canadian researchers announced a scientific breakthrough March 2 that could change the course of stem cell research and eventually make the ethical debate moot.

As detailed in the research journal Nature, the researchers found a safer way to reprogram ordinary human skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells. While a 2007 study by Japanese and American researchers did something very similar, the British and Canadian researchers did it without the use of a virus, which the ’07 teams had used to complete the process. Researchers feared the use of viruses to turn the skin cells into the stem cells could cause cancer in patients.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, and they have the potential for leading to cures for diseases and other ailments.

“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells,” one of the researchers, Keisuke Kaji of the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian newspaper. “This new method will advance the field of regenerative medicine and should help understand diseases and test new drugs.”

With viruses no longer needed, the newer method has the potential to produce a limitless supply of safe embryonic-like stem cells — which are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) — but in a manner that is ethically acceptable to pro-lifers.

Prior to the announcement of the new method in 2007, the phrase “pluriopotent” — which refers to a stem cell that can develop into all of the different cell types in the body — was reserved only for embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells, also referred to as non-embryonic stem cells, typically have been regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types.

The British and Canadian study, which involved researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, means scientists in the U.S. could produce pluripotent stem cells without the use of embryos. Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of the tiny human beings. The newest research also has a practical benefit: By using skin cells, scientists can produce essentially an unlimited supply of pluripotent skin cells. With federally funded embryonic stem cell research, scientists would be limited by the number of available embryos — unless they were to use therapeutic cloning, which apparently would be banned under federal funds even if the bill in the Senate becomes law. By using a patient’s own skin cells, the stem cells would have the patient’s own DNA and would have less risk of being rejected by the patient’s body.

C. Ben Mitchell, a professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago, told Baptist Press the discovery “couldn’t happen at a better time.”

“Hopefully it will encourage the Obama administration to take the moral high ground and not sacrifice nascent human beings for their stem cells,” said Mitchell, a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Research science informed by respect for human dignity can be a powerful tool for healing. Research science stripped of respect for the life of every human being — including early human embryos — can become a tragic tool for destruction.”

The Obama administration has pledged to overturn the Bush-era ban on most forms of embryonic stem cell research.

The 2007 announcement by Japanese and American researchers was a breakthrough of its own but had problems because the teams had to use a virus to transport four crucial genes into the skin cell genome. The British and Canadian research found a way to place the four genes into the skin cell without the need of a virus.

“Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T,” Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told The Washington Post. “No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach.”

Other scientists hailed the breakthrough but told The Washington Post that research on embryonic stem cells should continue in order to see which method is more successful down the road.
Compiled by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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