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Stem cell breakthrough.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Scientists on Monday announced breakthroughs that may one day allow embryonic stem cells to be grown in a laboratory without harming healthy human embryos. If such experiments reach fruition, they could overcome religious and bioethical objections to stem cell research that destroys embryos when stem cells are extracted.

In the meantime, legislation relaxing restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research deserves to be passed by Congress and signed by President Bush. Congress appears willing; the House has already passed such a measure and the Senate, with support from Majority Leader Bill Frist, appears poised to do the same.

Unfortunately, the president has threatened to veto any attempt to relax the restrictions he imposed in 2001 limiting federal funding to research on the 78 stem cell lines in existence at the time. Only 22 of those original stem cell lines remain viable and eligible for federal funding. With contamination threatening to further reduce the available lines, Bush's limitations must be relaxed to enable vital research.

Efforts to obtain embryonic stem cells without harming embryos should continue on a parallel track, but such research mustn't be used as an excuse to postpone important work that could begin immediately. Embryonic stem cells hold the promise of producing potentially lifesaving treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis.

Monday's announcement by two independent teams of researchers bolsters hopes that scientists will someday find a more benign way to obtain embryonic stem cells. Their results, while promising, were based on studies with mice. They haven't been replicated with human cells.

And despite the potential for the new techniques to address the objections of those who believe an embryo from the moment of conception represents a life imbued with human rights, the experimental techniques raise ethical issues of their own. One of the new methods still subjects a human embryo to an added risk. The other, more controversial, approach involves deliberately creating an embryo with a disabled version of a gene that is crucial to normal development.

None of the alternatives to traditional embryonic stem cell research is ready for prime time. Discussions are just beginning about the ethical implications of cloning what amount to defective embryos.

Most Americans support embryonic stem cell research. They agree with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a staunch pro-life Republican, that "pregnancy does not begin in a petri dish." It's increasingly clear that what is essentially a religious controversy is destined to be resolved some day by scientific advances that will protect human embryos.

Meanwhile, federal funding of research on human embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking treatment should be authorized immediately.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Research holds promise of resolving ethical issue
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 18, 2005
Words:450
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