- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

A team of Texas and British researchers says it has produced large amounts of embryoniclike stem cells from umbilical cord blood, potentially ending the ethical debate affecting stem-cell research — the need to kill human embryos.

The international researchers said the cells — called cord-blood-derived-embryoniclike stem cells, or CBEs — have the ability to turn into any kind of body tissue, like embryonic stem cells do, and can be mass-produced using technology derived from NASA.

“It looks very promising,” said Dr. Randall Urban, an endocrinologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He stressed more research has to be done.

In a report published in the August issue of the journal Cell Proliferation, Dr. Urban and researchers at Kingston University in England described how they turned the CBEs into human liver tissue.

Scientists believe the ability to replicate tissue could lead to the development of ways to replace organs as well as treat life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which have been the focus of stem-cell research.

“It will be important if it’s true, and I hope it’s true,” Charles Jennings, executive director of Harvard University’s Stem-Cell Institute, said yesterday. But he said “many questions” need to be answered.

Those questions, he and other scientists said, include whether CBEs will function properly and what their life span will be.

Politically, the team’s findings offer hope to pro-life opponents of using federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which requires the destruction of human embryos. They say such research has been hyped and is far from proven. They’ve regularly called for more umbilical-cord-blood research.

In 2001, President Bush set a policy limiting federal funding to research on a group of embryonic stem-cell lines already in existence at that time — estimated to be 78 lines — a move many scientists argue has stifled the search for cures.

Dr. Urban said he sees a need for both adult and embryonic stem-cell research, but recognizes the objections of the pro-life community. In contrast, he said, “cord blood is normally discarded tissue” after birth, so there are no ethical concerns.

In addition to the moral questions surrounding their use, embryonic stem cells are rare. The Texas and British researchers point out that cord blood is an attractive source for stem cells, given that 100 million babies globally are born each year, 4 million in the United States alone.

The researchers’ findings come less than a month after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist surprised Capitol Hill by endorsing a bill to make more embryonic stem-cell research eligible for federal funding, breaking with Mr. Bush, who has said he would veto the legislation.

Mr. Frist, a physician, expressed qualified support for House-passed legislation that allows federal funding for an unspecified number of new lines of stem cells derived from embryos left over at in vitro fertilization clinics. Senate action on the stem-cell issue is still being worked out.

David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences for the Family Research Council, which advocates cord-blood and other adult stem-cell research that does not require destruction of embryos, said the research sounds “real exciting.”

Mr. Prentice said it is especially interesting because it comes just two weeks after scientists at the University of Pittsburgh announced they have discovered a type of cell in the human placenta that also shares the ability of embryonic stem cells to regenerate a wide variety of tissue.

Publication in a medical or scientific journal is the usual forum to announce a medical discovery. But publication of the Pittsburgh research has been delayed while the university sought patent protection for its discovery.

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