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Archive for Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Stanford announcement charges cloning, stem cell debate

December 11, 2002

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— Stanford University announced Tuesday its intention to develop human embryonic stem cells through nuclear transfer technology, becoming the first U.S. institution of higher education to publicly embrace an effort many consider to be cloning.

The intent of the project is to produce stem cells for medical research.

"Our avowed goal is to advance science," said Stanford medical professor Irving Weissman, who will direct the school's effort. "For any group to stay out of the action and wait for someone else to do it because of political reasons is wrong."

Weissman, and the university, emphatically denied that the project involves cloning embryos. He said Stanford's work would involve taking DNA from diseased adult human cells and transferring them into eggs, then growing them in the lab.

The cells then would be harvested, destroying the blastocysts before they're implanted, Weissman said. He said Stanford would use the stem cells only to study disease, and would not implant any cells to be grown into organs or other body parts.

Many other researchers say this is a distinction without a difference :quot; that this kind of nuclear transfer, which would create an exact genetic replica of the adult cell donor if allowed to grow, is in fact cloning.

The American Association of Medical Colleges, of which Stanford is a member, defines it this way:

"Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) or therapeutic cloning involves removing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell, replacing it with the material from the nucleus of a 'somatic cell' (a skin, heart, or nerve cell, for example), and stimulating this cell to begin dividing."

Weissman said his planned research is "not even close" to cloning.

Similar research has been done at the University of California at San Francisco, which ultimately closed down its program as its lead researcher was preparing to leave for England, where stem cell research is more accepted. It's also been done at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., which was roundly criticized after announcing preliminary results from its research.

Stanford's stem cell work will be part of the new Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, launched with a $12 million anonymous donation to the school. Much of the institute's research will be geared to treating cancer. Any stem cells created will be shared with outside researchers, many of whom complain of inadequate access to currently available stem cell lines.

Weissman, an outspoken stem cell research proponent, was named institute director.

Weissman, serving as chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel, testified before the U.S. Senate earlier this year in favor of nuclear transfer as a way of creating new lines of stem cells.

Scientists believe embryonic stem cells, which are created in the first days of pregnancy and develop into all the cells that comprise a human body, can be used to treat many illnesses.

Embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells, and some abortion opponents and others oppose the research.

Last year, President Bush limited federal funding to stem cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Of those 78 stem cell colonies worldwide that the Bush administration has said are eligible for federally funded research, only about a dozen are in good enough shape to use in experiments.

Even fewer - perhaps four lines - are being routinely shared and sent to other researchers interested in breaking into the field.

"Our avowed goal is to advance science," Weissman said. "For any group to stay out of the action and wait for someone else to do it because of political reasons is wrong."

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