Many conservative groups are applauding a breakthrough stem cell method that doesn't result in the destruction of human embryos.
Scientists announced Tuesday that they have generated human stem cells with embryonic qualities using human skin cells and not embryos.
Until now, embryonic stem cells genetically matching a person had to be extracted from cloned human embryos using "nuclear transfer" – the same controversial technique that was used to clone Dolly the sheep. The process, which required the destruction of human embryos in order for the stem cells to be harvested, is considered a major ethical concern by pro-life groups and one of the driving forces behind the stem cell debate.
The breakthrough stem cell method, however, uses a technique called "direct programming," in which genes added to the skins cells reprogram the chromosomes and revert the cells back to an embryonic state. Essentially, the reprogrammed cell is positioned to act like an embryonic stem cell and turn into one of many cell types of the human body that could be used to treat debilitating diseases.
The new work is documented in papers from two independent teams who performed the research. One paper, based on the research from a team led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, will be published in the Nov. 30 edition of the scientific journal Cell. The second paper is from a team led by Junying Yu, working in the lab of stem-cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It will be published Thursday in the online edition of Science magazine
In response to the announcement, conservatives lauded the scientific advancement as proof to their argument that stem cell solutions can be both effective and ethical.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the president was "very pleased" to hear the reports because the new method does not cross the "ethical line."
"By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries," said Fratto in a written statement.
He noted that President Bush was the first president to make federal funds available for human embryonic stem cell research and has a policy that allows only embryonic stem cell lines created before August 2001 to be used.
Bush has twice vetoed Congressional bills to overturn that policy.
"The President believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life," he added.
Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, who recently garnered the endorsement of National Right to Life Committee, said in an issued statement that the breakthrough was "exciting news."
"That makes 73 breakthroughs for adult and cord blood research to date. There are still no embryonic stem cell breakthroughs," said the former Tennessee senator, who opposes embryonic stem cell research, according to NRLC.
Adult stem cells have provided therapies for many chronic illnesses, including ovarian and breast cancer, Juvenile Diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, and Sickle Cell Anemia, said Thompson.
"Today's announcement is just one more indication that our current policy in relying only on adult stem cells is working," Thompson added.
Aside from ethical objections that have been raised over the destruction of human embryos, there are also problems associated with embryonic stem cell research because it requires women's eggs.
The eggs are rare and hard to come by. Embryonic stem cell research requires such a significant number of eggs that would render the study inefficient if not impossible.
Furthermore, ethical questions have been raised over the process used to harvest the eggs since it subjects the women donating them to a surgical procedure. Whether women should be paid for the eggs is also an ethical concern.
The new approach to producing human stem cells will "circumvent a second series of moral objections by providing a method for obtaining patient-matched stem cells without cloning human embryos or using women's eggs," expressed the National Catholic Bioethics Center in an issued statement.
"Once again science is catching up to ethics, proving that the moral way is the most sound, scientific choice," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America.
"This breakthrough allows scientists to further their research and continue to develop medical advances while still honoring the sanctity of life."
Wright, who heads the nation's largest public policy women's organization, also said the new method will allow lawmakers to be rest assured when they discontinue pursuing "politically-charged" policies that fund stem cell research which destroys embryos.
"What has too often been missing from this important debate is a simple fact of modern science: Encouraging medical research and protecting the sanctity of life are not mutually exclusive goals," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
While supporters of embryonic stem cell research acknowledged the advantages of direct programming, some still believe it should be done alongside embryonic stem cell research.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who has pushed for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, said he will continue to do so, reported CNN.
But the technique has one major figure in the scientific community convinced.
Cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut, famous for his role in cloning Dolly the sheep, told London's Daily Telegraph last week that he is giving up the cloning approach and plans to instead pursue direct reprogramming, which he believes to have "better potential" in producing stem cells.
Stem-cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison cited scientific motivations for pursuing research using the reprogramming technique.
"We weren't avoiding the ethical controversy—we just thought this was an alternative approach that would work quicker," Thomson told the Associated Press.
"I believe that these new results, while they don't end that controversy, are the beginning of the end of the controversy," he added.