The panel of experts that advises President Bush on bioethical issues heard descriptions yesterday of two new laboratory techniques that may give scientists a way to get large numbers of medically promising stem cells without creating or killing human embryos.
The two proposals were greeted enthusiastically, with several panel members saying the techniques, still in the experimental stage, may hold the promise of solving one of the most contentious bioethical dilemmas of the past decade.
Young Chung, right, and researcher Joel Marh of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., examine mouse embryonic stem cells. The techniques described yesterday would require more refinement on animals before human cells could be used.
(Julia Malakie -- AP)
"If this pans out scientifically, it will be a major step forward. It may provide an opportunity to get through the political impasse," said Leon R. Kass, the physician who chairs the President's Council on Bioethics.
In one technique, scientists would harvest viable cells from embryos created to treat infertility but which have stopped developing and are functionally dead. Taking the cells -- which can grow into stem cells -- would be analogous to removing organs of brain-dead accident victims for transplant.
In the second technique, scientists would intentionally sabotage a cloning process called "nuclear transfer" so that the resulting bundle of cells is not an embryo but still has stem cell precursors. They could then be removed and used.
The purported advantage of both techniques is that neither involves an embryo with the potential for growth. In the first, the embryo has already died; in the second, it never existed.
Conventional methods for obtaining stem cells involve the destruction of a viable embryo, which opponents, including President Bush, consider unethical.
The two new strategies have been under development for at least two years by researchers in several labs but only recently became widely known. They would need more refinement in animals before they could be tried with human cells.
Kass said the ideas raise the possibility that "the partisans of scientific progress and the defenders of the dignity of nascent human life can go forward in partnership without anyone having to violate things they hold dear."
Panel member Diana Schaub, a political scientist at Loyola College in Maryland, said, "It seems to me almost too good to be true -- that scientific advance would solve a moral dilemma."
Stem cells are cells that have the capacity to develop into many types of tissue, and theoretically even whole organs. Many biologists believe they could yield a universe of therapies for diseases in which a person's organs or tissues fail. People whose insulin-producing part of the pancreas is destroyed by Type 1 diabetes, for example, might be able to replace it with tissue grown from stem cells.
The federal government currently funds embryonic stem cell research only on embryos created before 9 p.m. Aug. 9, 2001. Twenty-two colonies of stem cells (called "lines") fitting that restriction are available. Non-government funding -- by universities, charities or private donors -- can pay for research on other cell lines, but some scientists argue that the lack of federal funds is slowing research.
That view was apparently shared by many California voters, who in the recent election passed a bond issue that will provide as much as $3 billion over 10 years to pay for research on "non-qualifying" stem cell lines and on cloning of human embryos for therapeutic purposes.
The bioethics panel has not taken a stand on whether the federal restrictions on the financing of stem cell research should be loosened. The 17-member group is roughly divided on the matter.