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Stemming the Asian tide

"Stemming the Asian tide" Continued...

Issue: "Judicial filibuster deal," June 4, 2005

Dr. Richard Chole is head of the otolaryngology department at the Washington University School of Medicine. In the months before Missouri's proposed cloning ban died in the General Assembly, Dr. Chole worked to explain the ethics and science of stem-cell research to politicians and the public. He met with Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who had vowed to veto the cloning ban if it passed.

"The governor seems to differentiate between creating embryos through . . . cloning and the old-fashioned way. [Cloning] is not something that occurs by the fertilization of human egg and sperm, so the governor believes it is not a unique human being. It's identical to the genes in [the original] cell," Dr. Chole said.

Proponents of the cloning ban sought support by distinguishing the term "therapeutic cloning" from "reproductive cloning." Clones made for therapy, they said, could not develop into a full-term baby if implanted in a uterus.

But advances in "therapeutic cloning"-like those made in South Korea-create embryos that are more likely to develop in utero. Dr. Chole finds that possibility most threatening in the new research.

The Korean groups discovery, he said, "seems to indicate that some of the problems in cloning human embryos have been overcome by creating embryos which behave more like natural embryos. This advance may make their stem cells more suitable for transplantation, but they probably have greater potential for implantation and further embryonic and fetal development."

In cases like Mr. Hwang's, the difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning could become a matter of ethics. The Korea Times described Mr. Hwang as a devout Buddhist whose beliefs helped him sort out the ethical questions of stem-cell research. The newspaper quoted one of Mr. Hwang's partners, Moon Shin-yong, as saying cloning represented a "different way of thinking about the cycle of life and rebirth."

Science reported that "Hwang and his colleagues had no intention of cloning a person."

Dr. Chole said today's embryonic stem-cell research climate tempts scientists who have the best intentions.

"Sometimes the potential for discovery is so overwhelming that scientists might compromise good ethical decisions," Dr. Chole said. "I think that they honestly feel that this is an avenue of discovery that is worth the . . . use of embryos."

That temptation is why scientists need an outside source of standards, Dr. Chole said. The standards set by the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act still prevent federally funded scientists from experimenting with cloning.

As a researcher at a university that supports cloning for research purposes, Dr. Chole relies on his own set of standards.

"My perspective is that the Scripture is true," he said. "I think that's what Martin Luther King Jr.'s perspective was. Just as the fact that all people should have equal rights is a scriptural truth, the fact that we're designed and knitted together in our mother's womb not only is a scriptural truth, but it is a scientific truth as well."

A lifesaving alternative

A House vote to support adult stem-cell research was little more than a hiccup in news coverage of the embryonic stem-cell debate. But for a struggling network of private transplant banks across the country, the vote could turn out to be a lifesaver.

With a vote of 431-1, Congress appropriated more than $150 million over the next five years to support nationwide cord-blood stem-cell transplants. Until last week, Congress had appropriated no more than $30 million at a time to cord-blood transplantation.

"Cord-blood stem cells, collected from the placenta and umbilical cord after birth without doing harm to mother or child, have been used in the treatment of thousands of patients suffering from more than 60 different diseases," President Bush said in a statement supporting the measure. He urged votes on it as an alternative to the measure funding embryonic stem-cell research.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), compared the success of cord-blood transplants to the lack of treatments derived from embryonic stem-cell research.

"Umbilical cords are a rich, noncontroversial source of stem cells, but currently hospitals throw millions of them away each year because we do not have the infrastructure needed to properly collect and store them," Mr. Smith said. "The best-kept medical secret has been that thousands have been successfully treated with cord-blood stem cells for more than 67 diseases, including leukemia and sickle-cell anemia."

Cord-blood transplant doctors and banks have struggled since the close of a $30 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) cord-blood research grant program in 2001. That same year, Mr. Bush opened federal funding to embryonic stem-cell research. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration received $10 million in appropriations last year for collecting and banking umbilical cord blood.

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