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Stem cells developed in city lab; Technique used leaves embryos undamaged.

Byline: Lisa Eckelbecker

WORCESTER - Scientists working at Advanced Cell Technology Inc.'s Worcester laboratories say they have developed two new lines of human embryonic stem cells by plucking single cells from early-stage embryos, a technique that leaves the embryos undamaged and may resolve some ethical opposition to the field.

The process, disclosed today in the British journal Nature, is the same technique used to test an embryo for genetic problems. By leaving an embryo intact and ready for parents to implant, Advanced Cell officials said, the technique might satisfy certain stem cell opponents and open the field to more federally backed research.

"The main objection to embryonic stem cell research is, it deprives embryos of the chance to develop," said Dr. Robert P. Lanza, Advanced Cell's vice president of medical and scientific development and an author of the Nature paper. "We can now derive these stem cell lines without destroying the embryo and destroying its potential for life."

Some observers, however, said interfering with embryos for non-therapeutic purposes remains wrong. The technique is used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to determine which embryos to terminate, and scientists would do better to seek other ways to create stem cells, said Edward J. Furton, ethicist and director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

"If you can produce an entity, a biological artifact that is not an embryo and we can be certain of that, and it produces embryonic stem cells, that would be a solution," Mr. Furton said.

Stem cells are the body's master cells, capable of duplicating indefinitely and differentiating into various tissues. Embryonic stem cells are the body's earliest stem cells, found inside an embryo, or blastocyst, that is four to five days old.

Some researchers believe it might someday be possible to guide embryonic stem cells to generate tissues that could be transplanted into humans to treat diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other disorders. But waiting until the early embryo has stem cells, and pulling them out, destroys the embryo, a step that some critics oppose.

In the United States, researchers can obtain federal funds to work on 21 embryonic stem cell lines that were developed before August 2001. But many researchers consider those lines weak, tainted and snared in patent issues. President Bush last month used the first and only veto of his tenure to kill legislation that would have loosened federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

In a statement released yesterday, stem cell research supporter Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., praised Advanced Cell and criticized the Bush administration's "arbitrary restrictions."

"It's tragic that the current Republican Congress continues to rubber-stamp the restrictions that deny federal funding for scientists engaged in medical research that could save or improve countless lives," the senator said.

According to the report in Nature, Advanced Cell scientists started with 16 leftover embryos that had been created through in vitro fertilization, or IVF, and donated through a fertility clinic. When the embryos had divided enough to have just eight to 10 cells each, scientists used tiny instruments to remove individual pre-stem cells, or blastomeres.

"It's like a bunch of grapes," Dr. Lanza said. "You pluck one out."

The technique is the same one used in fertility clinics to test embryos for genetic diseases before they are implanted in the uterus of a woman. First used in England in the 1980s, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is controversial, but has led to the birth of hundreds of children.

After plucking blastomeres out of the embryos, Advanced Cell scientists placed them in a laboratory dish and allowed them to divide. In two cases, the blastomeres generated embryonic stem cells that remained stable for eight months. The researchers said they used those stem cells in additional experiments to produce cells of the blood system, the liver, the respiratory system and the intestine.

A number of scientific teams are working on ways to generate embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. Some scientists have reported isolating stem cells from adult tissues and jolting them back to an embryonic state.

Working with mice, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a technique, called altered nuclear transfer, in which they cloned mice with genetically altered cells so that mouse embryos could make stem cells but could not develop into a mouse.

Dr. Lanza said that with the technique used by Advanced Cell scientists, parents undergoing IVF could have single cells surgically removed from their embryos and cultured so that some could be tested for genetic diseases and others could be processed into stem cells. Embryos could then be implanted in their mothers and the stem cells used for research or for future medical treatments for the child or his or her siblings, he said.

The new use of the technique has only positive sides, Dr. Lanza said, and "the most important positive side is these stem cell lines are immortal, so they could be used for stem cell research throughout the world," he said.

Yet while genetic testing appears to cause no harm to embryos, IVF embryos destined for reproduction should not be subjected to the procedure just to obtain cells for research, said Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

"I would not think this procedure should be done on embryos that are used in human reproduction," she said in an e-mail. "Such deliberate risk would not be acceptable. It is only acceptable to avoid fatal or very serious genetic disorders."

Alameda, Calif.-based Advanced Cell said it will make the two new lines of stem cells available to researchers through the United Kingdom Stem Cell Bank.

For the company, the scientific news comes as it is seeking to raise up to $11.3 million through the sale of securities known as senior secured convertible debentures and warrants. Advanced Cell has long toiled to raise money for its research, which some investors consider too undeveloped or too vulnerable to political restrictions.

Although the company maintains a significant research operation in Worcester, it has also established a laboratory in California to capitalize on any funding that may become available through the state's plan to funnel $3 billion to stem cell research.

Contact business reporter Lisa Eckelbecker by e-mail at



CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Dr. Robert P. Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development for Advanced Cell Technology Inc. and an author of the paper on creating stem cells. (GRAPHIC) Plucking a single cell from an embryo
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 24, 2006
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