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Stem cell divide

SCIENCE TOOK AN UNNECESSARY leap forward Wednesday. A Bay Area biotechnology company announced a breakthrough in stem cell research that could quell religious objections to such research and persuade the federal government to lift its restrictions on funding it. It’s an impressive advance, but scientists -- and society -- would be better off if they could spend more time searching for ways to cure some of humankind’s most debilitating diseases and less time trying to satisfy the demands of politics.

The biotech firm, Advanced Cell Technology, says it has found a way to create embryonic stem cells without destroying or damaging early-stage embryos, which is what many social conservatives object to. Yet those critics hardly seem satisfied with the new approach: The very word “embryonic” raises new objections from those who seek extraordinary and sometimes irrational restraints on stem cell research.

The technique developed by Advanced Cell Technology would work with fertilized eggs when they have divided into eight cells. One cell is then removed -- something that’s already done for genetic testing during in vitro fertilization; the other seven cells would remain a viable embryo. The harvested cell could be used for both stem cell research and genetic testing.

What could possibly be the objection? The National Catholic Bioethics Center has two, for starters. One is that the extracted cell has the potential to develop into an embryo. Never mind that those extracted cells aren’t now developed into embryos when extracted for genetic testing or other uses.

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The other is that the embryo is undergoing a medical procedure -- the extraction of one cell -- not for its own benefit but for the cause of science. If the cell can also be used for genetic testing, however, it is being used for that embryo’s benefit. And even if it is not, there are many other procedures -- organ donation, for example -- that do not benefit the host but are nonetheless viewed not only as acceptable but as moral.

The Catholic Bioethics Center, at least, offers more than objections, outlining a scenario under which stem cell research is acceptable. It involves the cloning of adult cells, then using genetic technology to tinker with the cell’s nucleus so it has the potential to create embryonic-type stem cells that have no chance of being an embryo. Japanese scientists are working on similar research. But not all stem cell research opponents find this technique acceptable, if it ever proves feasible.

Laboratory advances that make stem cell research politically popular are welcome. But as Advanced Cell Technology has demonstrated, scientists have already gone to great lengths to answer political objections to their work. It’s more important to focus stem cell research on saving lives, not on appeasing a minority of religious conservatives.


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