Scientists reported Thursday that they have made human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a development that the government’s top stem-cell official said would make the research eligible for federal funding.
Story Landis, who chairs the National Institute of Health’s Stem Cell Task Force, said that, with certain safeguards, the new method appeared to comply with current federal restrictions that largely have shut out the field from the $28 billion the government spends on medical research each year.
Federal law prohibits the National Institutes of Health from funding experiments that place human embryos at risk of injury or death, and spending on embryonic stem-cell research is restricted to projects involving a handful of cell lines that were created before August 2001.
Researchers at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., created four stem-cell lines out of individual cells plucked from 3-day-old embryos that continued to develop normally. The method was described in the online edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell.
The removal of a single cell from a young embryo is done thousands of times a year in the U.S. by fertility laboratories to screen embryos for genetic diseases.
Dr. Robert Lanza, Advanced Cell Technology’s chief scientific officer, said researchers could piggyback on those procedures by allowing the removed cell to divide in a laboratory dish. Then, with the consent of patients, one could be used for genetic screening and the other could be used to make stem cells.
Under those circumstances, “it should be permissible under the Bush policy,” said Russell Korobkin, a stem-cell expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. “The NIH should not decline to fund this research.”
The technique still faces ethical concerns.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said that even if no embryos are destroyed, removing a single cell from an embryo turns it into “a starting source for harvestable raw materials, in a gesture that reduces young humans to commodities.”
But for scientists who have struggled under federal restrictions, the technique has injected a sense of optimism that there soon might be a break in the political logjam that scientists blame for stalling progress in the field.