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 The 'Other' Stem Cells. Story by Charles Reineke.


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Standing before an audience made up, in part, of babies born via in vitro fertilization, last summer George W. Bush used his first-ever presidential veto to reject bipartisan Congressional legislation aimed at restarting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. "These boys and girls are not spare parts," the president said, with a nod toward the assembled infants. "They remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research.''

Whether harvesting surplus blastocysts produced during fertility treatments -- a primary source for embryonic stem cells -- constitutes "destroying" embryos in the name of research is a matter of impassioned debate, one that has become a flash point in America's increasingly bitter culture wars.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to generate any of the approximately 220 cell types that make up a fully formed human being. This remarkable pluripotency, scientists say, is reason enough to advocate additional federal support for embryonic stem cell research. Still, most would welcome an alternative to today's politically fraught status quo, one allowing them to investigate stem cells' potential for improving human health without engaging quite so many human emotions.

One way forward, pioneered by researchers at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., involves obtaining stem cells without destroying the blastocyst from which they are harvested. The method shows promise, but has thus far been only partially successful in generating stable cell lines. In addition, after publishing their work in the August 23 edition of Science, ACT revealed in a correction that their test method had, in fact, resulted in the destruction of the 16 surplus in vitro fertilization embryos used in the study -- an admission that immediately raised the ire of stem cell opponents.

Another promising, less controversial method involves developing stem cell lines obtained from mature tissues. Not only would such cell lines help researchers avoid origins-of-life issues, but some molecular biologists believe adult cells might actually be better suited to the type of medical applications envisioned by stem cell boosters.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.