Thursday, August 24, 2006

Scientists make key stem cell advance

Scientists make key stem cell advance
By Clive Cookson in London
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 23 2006 21:53 | Last updated: August 23 2006 21:53

Scientists in the US have created human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a discovery that appears to get round a basic ethical objection to stem cell research.

The breakthrough – published online on Thursday by the scientific journal Nature – could help lead to greater public funding for the field and make it more appealing for commercial investment.

Researchers from Advanced Cell Technology, a US biotech group, have generated stem cell cultures by plucking individual cells from newly fertilised embryos, which are not harmed. Stem cell production until now involved taking larger masses of cells from slightly older embryos, which are inevitably lost.

The discovery “has the potential to play a critical role in the advancement of regenerative medicine”, said Ronald Green, director of Dartmouth College’s Ethics Institute and head of ACT’s independent ethics board.

“It appears to be a way out of the political impasse in the US and elsewhere,” Prof Green added. “I see this as a real opportunity for the Bush administration to address the need for embryonic stem cell lines, while maintaining their ethical position that embryos should not be destroyed to obtain them.”

But hardline critics of embryo research – such as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops – are unlikely to accept the manipulation even of a single embryonic cell, which they say could theoretically become a human being.

George W. Bush, US president, last month vetoed a bill that would have required the federal government to fund experiments with newly created human embryonic stem cells. Similar debates are taking place in Europe, where research with human embryos is illegal in some countries, such as Germany, and funded by governments in others, such as the UK.

“Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical concerns,” the White House said last night. “This technique does not resolve those concerns, but it is encouraging to see scientists at least making serious efforts to move away from research that involves the destruction of embryos.”

The ACT breakthrough is based on a single-cell biopsy, known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which fertility clinics use to detect gene defects in IVF embryos. Robert Lanza, the company’s head of research, said ACT would implement the procedure in collaboration with an IVF clinic, so that a biopsy could be used both for PGD and stem cell generation.

“There would be no downside for patients,” said Dr Lanza. “The chance of the embryo developing into a healthy child would not be affected – and the child would have a genetically identical line of stem cells that could be banked and used later in life.”

ACT has patent protection for its technique but plans to make the resulting stem cell lines “freely available for research”.

Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington


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