Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Embryo-Based Research: Advances and Argument A Biomedical Breakthrough May Push Congress to Revisit Whether to Use Federal Funds on Fetal-Cell Studies

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Embryo-Based Research: Advances and Argument A Biomedical Breakthrough May Push Congress to Revisit Whether to Use Federal Funds on Fetal-Cell Studies

Article excerpt

A major biological breakthrough - heralded by many as a key step in the quest for more effective treatment of disease - is likely to reignite a debate over use of human embryos for biomedical research.

The storm, which may reach Capitol Hill as soon as January, when the new Congress convenes, concerns lawmakers' refusal to use federal funds on any human-embryo research. It could set up the most serious clash yet between two groups that define themselves as protectors of human life - anti-abortionists and certain religious leaders on one side, and doctors and research biologists on the other.

The stir centers on the work of two science teams, which even bio- tech critic Jeremy Rifkin says is "a remarkable development." Drawing material from surplus embryos and aborted fetuses, the teams have isolated and nurtured the basic cell type from which more- specialized cells in the human body emerge. Their achievement is the first step toward harnessing these cells, called embryonic stem cells, to treat a wide range of diseases. Other biologists hope it will also help unlock secrets these cells hold about the earliest stages of a human's physical growth. "This is going to be a heated, much-debated subject," says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems, which embraces the medical school. The breakthrough also raises anew questions about the appropriate oversight role of government in biological research. Until now, it was not certain that these stem cells could even be isolated and cultured - so there was no imperative for Congress to revisit the issue, says Dr. Caplan. But now, as researchers and patients foresee benefits from embryonic-stem-cell-based treatments, "the pressure to change policies will mount," he says. "This is going to be one of the first things the new Congress will face." One team's work, published in today's edition of the journal Science, drew its supply of stem cells from surplus embryos donated by patients at an in-vitro fertilization clinic run by the University of Wisconsin at Madison's medical school. The team was able to remove stem cells from five different blastocysts - hollow structures of about 140 cells that build over several days after fertilization. Each embryonic stem cell is capable of becoming almost any cell type contained in the human body - blood cells, muscle-tissue cells, or nerve cells, for example. This specialization begins to occur just a few days after stem cells form, says team leader and University of Wisconsin developmental biologist James Thomson. …

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