Stem cells made without destruction of embryos

Critics still raise objections

? Find a way to make stem cells without destroying an embryo and you might resolve one of the nation’s fiercest public debates.

A biotech company seems to have done it. But early signs are the scientific achievement is not the slam-dunk solution the company had hoped.

Stem cell opponents said Wednesday that the new method still doesn’t satisfy their objections. And on the other side, many scientists and supporters of federal funding for the research called the technique inefficient and politically wrong-headed.

But a spokeswoman for President Bush, who last month vetoed legislation that would have allowed federal money for embryonic stem cell research, called it a step in the right direction.

And Dr. Robert Lanza, an executive with Advanced Cell Technology, which created the new stem cell lines, said: “This will make it far more difficult to oppose this research.”

Stem cells have become a Holy Grail for advocates of patients with a wide variety of illnesses because of the cells’ potential to transform into any type of human tissue, perhaps leading to new treatments. But the Vatican, President Bush and others have argued that the promise of stem cells should not be realized at the expense of human life, even in its most nascent stages.

How it works

The new method works by taking an embryo at a very early stage of development and removing a single cell, which can be coaxed into spawning an embryonic stem cell line. With only one cell removed, the rest of the embryo retains its full potential for development.

Dr. Robert Lanza, of Clinton, Mass., vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, poses in his office at the company's headquarters in Worcester, Mass., in this 2004 file photo. The company has developed a new way of creating stem cells without destroying human embryos, billing it as a potential solution to a political and ethical debate.

The method was described online Wednesday in the British journal Nature. The journal published a similar paper by Advanced Cell Technology last year demonstrating the technique’s viability in mice.

“The science is interesting and important,” said John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester in Great Britain, commenting on the biotech company’s efforts.

Debate continues

But few believe it will resolve the bitter ethical battle over stem cell research.

“This will please no one,” predicted a longtime critic of the company, Glenn McGee, director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute in Albany, N.Y.

Some stem cell researchers complain that the new approach, though it may hold future promise, simply isn’t as efficient as their current method of creating stem cells. That procedure involves the destruction of embryos after about five days of development, when they consist of about 100 cells.

Meanwhile, hard-line opponents of stem cell science argue that the technique solves nothing, because even the single cell removed by the new approach could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human. Some also object over the possibility the procedure could harm the embryo in an unknown way.

The method “raises more ethical questions than it answers,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Legal issues

U.S. law currently bans federal funding of any research that harms human embryos. A White House spokeswoman said the method’s eligibility for funding could not yet be determined, “but it is encouraging to see scientists at least making serious efforts to move away from research that involves the destruction of embryos.”

President Bush has said that he personally opposes any research that sacrifices embryonic life, even to save an existing person. In August 2001 the president limited federal funding to research on a few dozen stem cell lines that had been created up to that point.

Scientists complain that the decree has severely crippled progress in the field. But recent developments have moved them toward their twin goals of attracting non-federal money for stem cell research and overturning the restrictions.

Several states, including California, New Jersey and Illinois, have set up ways to fund the research. A number of Democratic candidates in this year’s congressional elections are focusing on the issue.

The research at Advanced Cell Technology subverts those efforts, McGee said. But writing in Nature earlier this year about the demonstration of the technique in mice, Stanford University stem cell researcher Irving Weissman disagreed.

“Although the efforts cited here will be criticized as a diversion of good science by politics, I believe all of these attempts to advance and translate medical science should be pursued in parallel,” Weissman wrote.