- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005


South Korean scientists have dramatically sped up the creation of human embryonic stem cells, growing 11 batches that for the first time were a genetic match to injured or sick patients.

It is a major advancement in the quest to grow patients’ own replacement tissue to treat diseases. But opponents say such work is unethical and should be banned because the research involves destroying embryos.

The same scientists last year were the first to clone a human embryo. Now they have improved, by more than tenfold, their efficiency at culling these master cells, thus making the pursuit of therapeutic cloning more practical.

“I didn’t think they would be at this stage for decades, let alone within a year,” said Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh. He acted as an adviser to the Korean lab in analyzing its data, which was published today in the journal Science.

“This paper will be of major impact,” said stem-cell researcher Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument that it will not work in humans will not be tenable after this.”

This research is not about cloning to make babies. Instead, scientists create test-tube embryos to supply stem cells, the building blocks that give rise to every tissue in the body and that are a genetic match for a particular patient, preventing rejection by the immune system.

If scientists could harness the regenerative power of those stem cells, they might be able to repair damage from spinal-cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s and other diseases.

Any potential therapy is years away from being tested in humans. But the new research marks several advances:

cLast year’s cloned stem cells were from one healthy woman. This time, the Seoul scientists created stem cells that were genetic matches to 11 patients — of both sexes, as young as 2 and as old as 56, and suffering spinal-cord injuries, diabetes or a genetic immune disease.

• Last year, it took attempts with 242 donated human eggs to grow one batch of stem cells. This time, it took an average of 17 eggs per batch and 14 eggs if they were from women younger than 30.

“Therapeutic cloning has tremendous, tremendous healing potential, but we have to open so many doors before human trials,” said the lead researcher, Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University.

More immediately, the research will allow scientists to watch the very earliest origins of diseases such as Alzheimer’s form inside a patient’s cloned, living cells, said neuroscientist Fred Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. That could point to new ways to prevent and treat illnesses, he said.

The research also will add to the political sparring over whether to expand government-funded stem-cell research.

Because culling stem cells destroys the days-old embryo harboring the cells, President Bush in 2001 banned federally funded research on all but a few old embryonic stem-cell lines. A vote on whether to ease those restrictions could come in the House as early as next week.

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