- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Though the world's attention has focused on Iran's advancing nuclear program, Iranian scientists have moved to the forefront in embryonic stem cell research, according to a recent joint study by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Controversial in the United States, embryonic stem cell research was embraced in 2002 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's conservative religious leader. President Obama has recently adopted a similar policy, reversing restrictions that George W. Bush's administration imposed because of the implications for destroying potential human lives.

Stem cells have been shown to have significant capability to develop into a plethora of different cell types and work as a repair system to replenish cells with specialized functions.

“Islam is very compatible with the modern sciences,” said Hassan Ashktorab of the Howard University Cancer Center. “Policies that may be classified as liberal in the American political system seem to be common sense to Iranian politicians.”

Ayatollah Khamenei has often spoken of launching Iran to the scientific vanguard of the Muslim world, and scientific achievement is important to Iranian national pride. During the Persian Empire - a designation for Iran used until the early 20th century - Iran was a crossroads of medical advancements and established itself as a center of world learning.

The 1979 Islamic revolution triggered a massive brain drain, slowing Iranian advances in science, Mr. Ashktorab said. “There are many renowned scientific intellectuals around the world who are originally Iranian, yet they have adopted a new nationality in the country to which they have migrated,” he said.

ButAli Khademhosseini, an Iranian immigrant to the U.S. who co-wrote the recent study on stem cells for the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, said brain drain is “a more generic issue in Iran” and has not prevented Iranian scientists from making advances in certain areas, such as stem cell research.

“The sciences in Iran have a lot of committed and passionate people, so the brain drain doesn't necessarily affect this field,” he said.

In 1988, after the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Iran began to heavily invest in the sciences. According to the study by Mr. Khademhosseini and David Morrison, government spending on science rose from 0.2 percent of Iranian gross domestic product in 1990, or about $232 million, to 0.65 percent in 2005, the equivalent of $1.2 billion.

In 2008, Press TV, Iran's state-sponsored English language international news channel, reported that the Iranian government planned to invest $2.5 billion in stem cell research alone over a period of five years.

Iran's stem cell research is centered at the Royan Institute, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains in northern Tehran.

Founded in 1991 as an infertility clinic, it was expanded in 1998 into a Ministry of Health-approved cell research center. According to the Royan Institute Web site, it hosts departments in six fields: stem cells, embryology, gynecology, genetics, andrology and epidemiology.

Iran is in the top 10 of countries in the world that produce, culture and freeze human embryonic stem cells, according to Mr. Khademhosseini's study.

This places Iran in the company of countries including Sweden, Japan, the United States, Australia, Britain, India, South Korea and Singapore.

Royana, the name given to the first cloned sheep in the Middle East, was born Sept. 30, 2006, in the Iranian city of Esfahan. Iranian scientists have also identified and isolated human kidney stem cells and cultured and produced differentiated liver tissues in mice.

Despite Iran's conservative Islamic rule, there is broad government approval for embryonic stem cell research, which Muslim clerics say is permissible under Islamic law. Shi'ite Muslim scholars believe that the fetus is given a soul at 120 days, before which abortion is permissible when there is a physical or emotional threat to the mother - thus avoiding the abortion debates common in the United States.

Ayatollah Khamenei often cites the Koran's emphasis on preventing human illness and suffering as evidence that stem cell research and Islam are compatible. Limits do exist: Iran's supreme leader has warned Iranian scientists to be careful that producing identical parts of human beings does not lead to producing a human being, as human cloning is not accepted - a policy shared by the Obama administration.

Although Iran's progress has been noteworthy, political unrest between Iran and the West has been an impediment. Sanctions directed against Iran's nuclear and missile programs have lessened the availability of other scientific supplies and equipment primarily manufactured in the U.S. Many Iranian scientists depend on the black market to acquire the equipment necessary for common scientific practices, though at a higher cost.

Mr. Khademhosseini said that despite these problems, he is optimistic about the future. Iranian “research is improving; there is support from the general public, as well as the government. It definitely looks bright.”