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Stem cell confusion.

Byline: The Register-Guard

OK, in the world of stem cell breakthroughs, this one left a lot to be desired. Turns out it isn't the bioethical magic bullet that allows embryonic stem cells to be created without harming the host embryo.

Not that anyone would have guessed that from Robert Lanza's bold pronouncement in a paper published online Aug. 23 in the prestigious journal Nature.

"What we have done, for the first time," Lanza wrote, "is to actually create human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself."

Well, not exactly. In fact, all 16 of the embryos used in Advanced Cell Technology's research were destroyed. That information is contained in Lanza's paper, but Nature's abstract and press release focused narrowly on the principle proven by the research, which critics say overhyped the results.

It was the hype that dominated headlines: "Stem cell experiment solves ethical dilemma." "Embryos unharmed in research breakthrough."

If Lanza's scientists at Advanced Cell Technology had found a way to create new embryonic stem cell lines without destroying the host embryos, it could clear the way for millions of dollars in federal funding for further research. Religious concerns over the destruction of embryos led President Bush to veto a bill authorizing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The stem cell debate is complex and can be confusing. There are essentially two types of stem cells - adult and embryonic. Both types have the ability to make identical copies of themselves and to divide into other specialized types of cells. Adult stem cells, which can be extracted from bone marrow, aren't as versatile as embryonic cells, which can differentiate into almost any type of cell in the human body.

What Lanza actually did was extract 91 cells from 16 embryos in order to create two new stem cell lines. A technique already exists - pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, in which a single cell is extracted from an embryo for genetic analysis - which shows that embryos can regularly survive such a procedure. Lanza said it wasn't necessary to prove that process.

But Lanza's 2 percent success rate in creating new cell lines, coupled with the loss of 100 percent of the embryos, left many scientists with questions - not about how the research was conducted, but about how it was presented.

Lost in the disappointment over the ambiguous breakthrough is the hunger within the scientific community and the American public for substantive embryonic stem cell research. Even opponents of research involving human embryos held their breath, hoping that Lanza had cleared the way for their support.

That's why efforts to advance the understanding of embryonic stem cells must continue on all fronts. Whether it comes via a scientific breakthrough or a veto-proof majority in Congress, President Bush must be forced to lift his restrictions on this life-saving research.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Recent research may have been overhyped
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 7, 2006
Words:466
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