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Embryonic Stem Cell Development Raises Ethical Concerns

Scientists have announced a new method of extracting stem cells from embryos, but it has done little to quell ethical concerns about the research. Two experts debate the ramifications of the new procedure.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent:

    Word that scientists have a new method for harvesting stem cells from human embryos without destroying them has some scientists hoping the discovery could break the political logjam over the highly controversial research.

    The new technique was first outlined yesterday on the journal Nature's Web site. After a fertilized egg is created through in vitro fertilization, it divides into eight cells, called blastomeres, becoming an early-stage embryo. Scientists then remove one of the cells and biochemically coax it into producing a line of embryonic stem cells. The remaining seven-cell embryo is unharmed and still capable of continuing to grow.

    The CEO of the California company that conducted the research had this to say.

  • WILLIAM CALDWELL, CEO, Advanced Cell Technology:

    In this case, we do not destroy the embryo. That's the whole purpose of what we perceive to be a major scientific breakthrough.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The method is similar to that used by fertility clinics called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, in which one cell is removed to screen for genetic disorders like Down syndrome.

    Until now, human embryonic stem cell lines have been created by taking the inner-cell mass from a later-stage embryo, in which there are more than 100 cells. In the process, the embryo is destroyed.

    And for that reason, in August 2001, President Bush banned U.S. scientists from using federal funds to create new stem cell lines from embryos. But the president's order did allow funding for research on existing stem cell lines.

    A White House spokesperson yesterday said the stem cell advance was a step in the right direction, but added, "Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical concerns. This technique does not resolve those concerns."

    Officials at the National Institutes of Health said yesterday, "It's unclear whether the new technique can meet the tough federal standard designed to protect embryos."