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Stem Cell Experts Defend Stanford Experiments

New center's research will lead to therapies, not human clones, they say

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Two of the nation's leading stem cell researchers today defended Stanford University's formation of a center that will use cloning techniques to generate stem cells from discarded human embryos.

Stanford announced yesterday that the Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, seeded with a $12 million grant from an unnamed donor, will support experiments directed at generating novel treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to Parkinson's to diabetes.

But to do so, university researchers may rely on "somatic cell nuclear transfer" technology. This involves taking the genetic hearts of cells and implanting them into stripped-down embryonic cells -- an approach religious conservatives, including President Bush, denounce, and which in theory could enable the cloning of a person.

"I'm very much in favor of what [Irving] Weissman is doing," said Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute, referring to the researcher who's heading the new Stanford institute.

Jaenisch acknowledged that the work is likely to dismay religious conservatives, but he insisted that no "serious scientist" would consider trying to clone a person.

The Bush administration has limited government funding for human embryo research to a few dozen existing lines of embryo-derived stem cells, but not for the creation of additional embryos. This year, California became the only state to explicitly permit therapeutic cloning. Scientists using private funds can perform embryo research, though the White House has pushed Congress to ban all forms of human cloning.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. Under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be "induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas," the National Institutes of Health says.

Stanford, stung by criticism yesterday after its announcement of the new center, issued a statement denying that its research would lead to human cloning.

"Creating human stem cell lines is not equivalent to reproductive cloning," the statement said. "These [stem] cells can go on to form many types of tissues, but cannot on their own develop into a human."

Ruthann Richter, a Stanford spokeswoman, said the center would begin with mouse studies and would not progress to human studies for some time. "The intent here is to develop a line of embryonic stem cells that can be used strictly for study purposes. The intent is not to create human embryos," she said.

Dr. Lorenz Studer, head of stem cell research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said the Stanford group faces more than just public controversy. The science itself is dazzlingly complicated.

"It's not a trivial matter; no one has come even close to doing" what the California researchers have set out to accomplish, said Studer, who also conducts experiments that combine cloning techniques with stem cells.The methods seem to work in mice and cows, he said, but success in human tissue has been elusive. "It's not something that will help patients immediately, but it's clearly important work," he added.

Thomas Murray, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, in Garrison, N.Y., said cloning to make a baby and cloning to make a new organ start with the same step. What happens down the line makes all the difference.

Embryonic stem cells experiments use small clusters, called blastocysts, comprising about 200 cells. Many scientists believe that embryos don't truly take form until somewhat later in development. Opponents of the practice dismiss that distinction as an attempt to obscure the fact that a potential life must be destroyed.

Murray, who supports therapeutic cloning but opposes reproductive cloning, said he believes "many more Americans are horrified at the thought of making a child" than they are with sacrificing embryos to generate treatments for disease.

Scientists are trying to grow stem cell lines from adult tissue and thus avoid the ethical and political thorns of embryo research.

The Cleveland biotech firm Athersys Inc., for example, has obtained exclusive rights from the University of Minnesota to develop stem cells derived from adult bone marrow, The New York Times reported today.

What To Do

To learn more about stem cells, visit the National Institutes of Health. You can also check with the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

SOURCES: Rudolf Jaenisch, M.D., professor of biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; Lorenz Studer, head of stem cell and tumor biology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City; Thomas Murray, Ph.D., president, Hastings Center, Garrison, N.Y.; Dec. 10, 2002, statement, Stanford University; Dec. 11, 2002, The New York Times
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