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Medical Research: In Support Of Stem Cells

2 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

Ever since they were first isolated two years ago, embryonic stem cells have been touted as a potential medical miracle. Diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and spinal-cord injury are among the devastating maladies that might be treated by turning these versatile cells into healthy replacements for just about any damaged tissue, from the pancreas to the brain.

But for many people, using embryos for anything besides making humans is morally repugnant. And Congress prohibits any federal funding of research on fetal tissue. Now that ban may be skirted.

Under new guidelines issued last week by the National Institutes of Health, government-funded scientists will be allowed to use early-stage embryos left over from in-vitro fertilizations in their attempts to understand and control how stem cells turn into specific kinds of tissues–so long as they are harvested by private firms. With government money finally behind it, says pioneering stem-cell researcher John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, “the work will move forward rapidly.”

It will, if the rules survive challenges in the courts and Congress–or by a new Administration. While the idea is a long shot, the whole debate could become moot if it turns out that adult stem cells are just as useful. For now, though, scientists who want to study stem cells–and people whose lives they might ease–are feeling better about the future.

–By Michael D. Lemonick. Reported by Dick Thompson/Washington

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