A Massachusetts company said on Wednesday it had developed a way to make human embryonic stem cells without harming the original embryo, a finding it said could dispel ethical objections to promising medical research using such cells.
"It is possible to generate stem cells without destroying the embryo and without destroying its potential for life," said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientist at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts.
President Bush last month vetoed an expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, saying that U.S. taxpayers who object to such research should not have to pay for it. Opponents have a range of objections which include a distaste for manipulating or destroying what they see as a potential human life.
"It (the new finding) at least takes away the president's last excuse to oppose the research," Lanza, who led the company's research team, said in a telephone interview.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, available from many sources, but many experts believe the most powerful and versatile cells may be those taken from days-old embryos.
Scientists hope to study these cells, discover what compounds enable them to produce any kind of body tissue, and replicate that to make tailored treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's.
Lanza's team had been saying they had an acceptable alternative to destroying embryos, and on Wednesday they published their research in the journal Nature.
In a sane world, of course, this would solve most if not all of the ethical dilemmas in stem cell research, but alas ...
Those who oppose any research that destroys a biological entity with the potential for human life argue that the new procedure solves nothing, because even the single cell removed in the technique could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human.
“It is widely believed that one cell of a very early embryo may separate and become a new embryo, an identical twin,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As it turns out, this last statement is untrue -- in order to produce an embryo, you need a totipotent
cell, which can produce all of the cells necessary for fetal
development. The single cell taken from the embryo by this process is
in fact not totipotent, but pluripotent, which is
what allows it to be used for the creation of stem cell lines for
research. But this cell, in and of itself, cannot become a second
embryo or identical twin, unless, of course, you want to get into the
subject of somatic cell nuclear transfer -- that is, cloning.
There will be a subset of contrarians who, no matter what advances are made in the area of stem cell technology, will oppose it, and if they need to, they will invent reasons to oppose it. But given the importance of this technology, and given the possibility that this may overcome the vast majority of ethical problems, I don't forsee those objections holding very much water.