- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

In the controversial field of stem-cell research, there have been some recent developments that might bridge some of the ethical and medical divides. Last month, the President’s Council on Bioethics heard from one of its members a proposal to create embryonic stem cells for research and development without having to kill a human embryo. Meanwhile, an institute in Detroit in conjunction with a clinic in Portugal is making progress in the field of adult stem-cell therapy for those suffering from spinal-cord injuries.

On Dec. 3, Dr. William B. Hurlbut, council member, physician and Stanford biology professor, said “it may be possible to produce embryonic stem cells within a limited cellular system that is biologically and morally akin to a complex tissue culture and thereby bypass moral concerns about the creation and destruction of human embryos.” What Dr. Hurlbut is suggesting is that scientists may not have to create human embryos for their stem cells, only to destroy them. The alternative would be to create a “culture” of cells that must lack “the essential elements for embryological development” (human life), but contain “a partial developmental potential capable of generating embryonic stem cells.” It is noteworthy that the highly regarded conservative Princeton ethicist Robert George, who is on the council, supports pursuing the idea. Should Dr. Hurlbut’s proposal yield positive results, it could, as he suggested, represent a “morally uncontroversial” way to conduct embryonic stem-cell research.

At the other end of the stem-cell question is the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit, where scientists and doctors are working closely with the Egas Miniz Hospital in Lisbon in clinical trials using adult stem-cell therapy for spinal injuries. In this procedure, which is only performed in Lisbon, Dr. Carlos Lima draws cells from the patient’s nasal cavity and grafts them onto the damaged spinal tissue. The olfactory mucosal cells are one of the body’s richest supply of adult stem cells that are capable of becoming any type of cell depending on where they are implanted, reports the Detroit Free Press. Early trials have yielded tantalizingly impressive results. One patient, who had been paralyzed from the arms down, underwent the surgery in 2003 and now has use of her arms for basic functions like feeding herself. The Rehabilitation Institute plans to request federal approval to perform the surgery in the spring.

Both of these advancements are encouraging signs. They expand the stem-cell debate from its previous “either/or” impasse toward a day when perhaps even embryonic stem-cell research can be performed without serious ethical concerns.

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