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November 21, 2007
Column #1,369
Major Breakthrough in Stem Cell Research
by Mike McManus

Two researchers on two different continents published studies in competing on-line magazines ("Science" and "Cell")  the same day reporting the same remarkable breakthrough. Both created cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells from human skin cells without destroying embryos or cloning.

No women's eggs had to be destroyed to create stem cells that could theoretically treat patients with personalized replacement parts for their bodies from their own skin. American and Japanese researchers report they have reprogrammed ordinary skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells.

"This has the potential to reshape the politics and science of stem cell research," said Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society which favors embryonic stem cell research.

President Bush devoted his first major televised address to this issue more than six years ago, drawing a bold moral line opposing as unethical embryonic stem cell research that involved the destruction of human life, which is what  a fertilized embryo is. To the skepticism of the scientific community, he argued that scientists could come up with an alternative way to create embryonic stem cells that did not involve killing human embryos.

Now Bush and his pro-life supporters feel vindicated. "The science has overtaken the politics," said Karl Zinsmeister, chief domestic aide to the President. "If you set reasonable parameters and offer a lot of encouragement and public funding, science will solve this dilemma, and you don't have to have a culture war about this."

Catholic Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia commented, "The goal sought for years through failed attempts at human cloning - the production of `pluripotent' stem cells that are an exact genetic match to a patient - has been brought within reach by an ethical procedure. This technology avoids the many ethical landmines associated with embryonic stem cell research: It does not clone or destroy human embryos, does not harm or exploit women for their eggs, and does not blur the line between human beings and other species through desperate efforts to make human embryos using animal eggs."

Bush did make one concession to scientists by allowing research to continue on already existing stem lines developed from human embryos, but prohibited the use of federal funds to develop new ones. 

One of the scientists who opposed Bush's limits was Dr. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin, the first scientist to isolate stem cells from 5-day-old embryos.  He did receive federal funding for his research, however, and led one of the scientific teams that announced the new breakthrough of developing pluripotent stem cells from skin cells.

Bush was criticized by Democrats who exploited the issue so successfully that it helped them take control of the Senate and House in 2006. Two-thirds of the public now support the use of embryonic stems cells in hopes that they might lead to cure such diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

At that time, only embryonic stem cells had the potential to morph into cells that might become brain cells or stomach cells. They had to be developed from a woman's egg which raised two ethical red flags.  First, one could envision "egg farms" in which women would be paid for their eggs by corporations to extract the embryos, though it could be medically risky or exploitative.  Second, each embryo would be killed in order to create the stem cells.

The Japanese scientist announcing the same breakthrough was Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University.  He also pioneered the technique of doing in a lab dish what an egg cell does naturally when fertilized, when his team identified four genes which could be injected into mouse skin cells last summer, turning countless other genes on and off in a pattern that makes cells almost indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.

A day before the dual breakthroughs were announced, Dr. Ian Wilmut, cloner of the famous sheep, Dolly, said that he is shelving cloning as an unproductive technique in favor of the approach developed by Dr. Yamanaka.  It was icing on the conservative cake.

This development could shake up the presidential race.  Rudy Giuliani, who favored embryonic stem cell research, was silent on the discovery, while Fred Thompson stated, "Today's announcement is just one more indication that our current policy in relying only on adult stem cells is working." 

Wendy Wright, President of Concerned Women for America, added, "This breakthrough can help voters to evaluate candidates on their moral fortitude to lead America. Will they do what is right because it is right, or will they do what is politically expedient and treat humans as objects to benefit others?"
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