This one would avoid the morally troubling act of killing the preborn for our own benefit.
A type of cell that floats freely in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women has been found to have many of the same traits as embryonic stem cells, including an ability to grow into brain, muscle and other tissues that could be used to treat a variety of diseases, scientists reported yesterday.
"They grow fast, as fast as embryonic stem cells, and they show great pluripotentiality," meaning they can become many kinds of tissues, said study leader Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. "But they remain stable for years without forming tumors," he added, something that embryonic cells are not very good at.
Sounds like pretty good news, though some are averse to dropping embryonic stem cells from their little toolkit.
Atala and other scientists emphasized that they don't believe the cells will make embryonic stem cells irrelevant.
"There's not going to be one shoe that fits all," said Robert Lanza, scientific director at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. "We're going to have to see which ones are most useful for which clinical conditions."
George Daley, a Harvard stem cell researcher, echoed that sentiment. "They are not a replacement for embryonic stem cells," he said.
And of course, some still think federal money is required and must be directed only towards one subject of research.
Last year, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding of research on stem cells from embryos discarded by fertility clinics. The newly Democratic Congress has promised to send the same or a similar bill to Bush's desk with even greater majorities early this term, with the House slated to vote on the matter this week.
The following is an interesting calculation and doesn't result in pressures to pay for and increase the number of abortions or create nightmares far worse.
Atala said that if 100,000 women donated their amniotic cells to a bank, that would provide enough cells of sufficient genetic diversity to provide immunologically compatible tissues for virtually everyone in the United States. With more than 4 million U.S. births a year, it would not take long to collect that many specimens, he said -- especially because the cells can be found not only in amniotic fluid but also in the placenta that is discarded after birth.
Hopefully all of this is confirmed and the technology can move forward, however, there are some doubts at the moment.
Although several stem cell experts applauded the work, some questioned the novelty of the newly described cells. Similar cells have been under study for years with little fanfare, they noted. And though Atala's careful characterization of them is better than any previously done, they said, it is not clear that his cells are truly different than ones others have in hand.
We may have a significant advancement in the treatment of disease, that will avoid not only the moral controversy over embryonic stem cells, but also the failure of ESC to result in successful treatments, as compared to "adult" stem cells. Unfortunately, I have to wonder if some will always be crying out for more and continue to hype the equivalent of vaporware to promote their ideology. As the article noted, the Democrats plan to send a bill back to the President requesting federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Sadly, the more things change, the more some things remain the same.
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