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is stem cell research an alternative to xenotransplantation?

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Robert Lanza is a believer in xenotransplantation--he is the co-author of a recent book on the subject, and he says that scientists are not far from successful pig-to-human transplants. But Lanza believes his small biotech company in Worcester, MA will one day produce an even better solution to the organ shortage: cells and organs grown from human stem cells with the help of advanced cloning techniques. Speaking in late 2000 to a Boston Globe reporter, Lanza predicted: "We'll be able to grow immune-compatible organs for anyone who needs one within 20 to 30 years, I'm virtually certain." In fact, this is the business plan of his company, Advanced Cell Technology: breeding transgenic cows and pigs for cellular and organ therapies in the near term, and developing stem cell science for the future.

Lanza's company is small, with only 20 employees, but, in early 2001, Johns Hopkins University, the place where stem cells were discovered some five years earlier, invested $60 million in a new Institute for Cell Engineering to develop stem cell therapies and transplant organs. At around the same time, the British government gave stem cell research an even greater vote of confidence by passing new legislation permitting all forms of human embryonic stem cell research. The UK also became the first nation in the world to legalize the cloning of human embryos for therapeutic (and not reproductive) purposes.

The future of stem cell research in the United States is not at all certain, however. It's heralded by some as the future of medicine and decried by others as murder. The medical potential of stem cells lies in their ability to develop into almost any tissue of an organism, and they are at their greatest capacity for development when they are taken from embryos. In August of 2000, the NIH approved funding for research on stem cells that are derived from embryos developed with private money in fertility clinics. But the Bush administration has strongly signaled a desire to make these guidelines more restrictive, prompting peremptory actions by Nobel Laureates and others who do not want to see the research stopped. Tommy Thompson, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, has given mixed signals on the issue in statements to congress. The issue will likely be decided in the summer of 2001.

Here's a look at some of the major developments in the controversy:

NATIONAL BIOETHICS ADVISORY COMMISSION (1998)

In November of 1998, President Clinton charged the National Bioethics Advisory Commission with the task of studying the ethical and medical concerns related to human stem cell research. In September of 1999, the Commission released its report. The report concluded that "the scientific merit and the substantial clinical promise" of the research justified the ethical concerns surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. The Commission supported federal funding for research using the stem cells from both aborted fetuses and fetuses left over after fertilization procedures. The report concluded that there was no compelling reason to allow for the creation of embryos solely for the production of stem cells.



NIH GUIDELINES (2000)

Following the release of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission's report, the National Institute of Health issued guidelines for federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research in August of 2000. The NIH guidelines stipulate that research may only be conducted on embryos left over from fertility treatments with the consent of the donors. There are currently an estimated 100,000 such embryos. The guidelines explicitly forbid research on aborted fetuses, the creation of embryos for research purposes, and cloning. Congress



BRITISH PARLIAMENT PERMITS CLONING (2001)

In January of 2001, the British parliament in a 366 to 174 vote passed a law permitting the use of embryos for stem cell research. But the Parliament went even further. They legalized the cloning of embryos for scientific research. Therapeutic cloning envisions that DNA from a patient will be used to create an embryo and then stem cells from that embryo would be used to create the cells or tissue needed by the patient with the patient's own genetic material. The hope is that therapeutic cloning will bypass the typical problem in procedures such as organ transplants where a patient rejects the organ as foreign material.



STEM CELL POLITICS (2001)

Although not directly addressing stem cell research, the Bush administration in their early days recommited themselves to their anti-abortion position. Fearing legislation or federal guidelines unfriendly to stem cell research, two scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, one of the leaders in this growing field, wrote a letter to President Bush to support federal funding for this research. An unprecedented group of 80 Nobel Laureates signed the letter.



A SPLIT IN THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION OVER STEM CELLS? (2001)

In March of 2001, Tommy Thompson, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services testified before the Senate on the budget for the National Institute of Health. He announced a $2.8 billion increase in funding-- the biggest in NIH history. During the question and answer session, Senator Gordon Smith asked Thompson about the future of federal funding for stem cell research. Thompson responded that he was troubled by the current law that prohibits the use of federal funds for stem cell research the derived from a destroyed embryo. He said that an independent legal review was underway that would determine the administration's position. Following the Senate hearing, Thompson's spokesperson said that Secretary Thompson had intended to convey the opposite position-- that he is troubled by the prospect of research conducted on destroyed embryos.

The exchange indicates that Secretary Thompson may be at odds with the Bush administration on the issue of stem cell research. Thompson is an abortion foe, but he also describes himself as "passionate about research". Researchers in the Secretary's home state of Wisconsin were among the first to isolate and grow stem cells.

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