Researchers Report Advance in Stem Cell Production

South Korean researchers say they've made a significant advance in the production of human embryonic stem cells. They can now use far fewer human eggs to produce usable stem cells — a major step toward mass production. Researchers hope these cells could eventually be used to treat a wide variety of diseases.

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The House could vote as early as next week on whether to loosen government restrictions on the federal funding of stem-cell research. Some lawmakers want the Bush administration to expand the number of stem-cell lines available to researchers who receive federal money. A major scientific development announced today may add fuel to that debate. Researchers in South Korea say they've dramatically improved the process of making human stem cells. Though controversial, these cells could prove useful for treating many diseases. For example, stem cells might grow into nerve cells for spinal cord repairs or into pancreatic cells to treat diabetes. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Research on stem cells in the United States has been slowed by an ethical debate over whether it's OK to manipulate human embryos, but that has not slowed the work in Korea. Researchers there have made major strides in producing these stem cells. The process requires a supply of human eggs, oocytes. Last year the Korean team announced success in creating one line of human stem cells, though it took 242 tries with 242 donated eggs.

Dr. GERALD SCHATTEN (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine): This year they're able to derive a stem-cell line on average using the number of oocytes that a woman would donate at an infertility clinic.

HARRIS: Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is a consultant for the Korean research team and co-author of an upcoming paper in Science magazine. They report it took an average of 16 tries using 16 eggs to produce each line, a huge improvement.

Here's what they did. They extracted DNA from the skin of 11 people. They injected that DNA into human eggs that had been donated by volunteers. Ultimately some of those modified eggs started dividing. Those dividing cells are called embryonic stem-cell lines. Woo Suk Hwang from Seoul National University says the secret to their success was endless experimentation with eggs from animals.

Mr. WOO SUK HWANG (Seoul National University): More than 1,000 eggs every day, including Saturday and Sunday.

HARRIS: All those long weekends paid off. The result is raising hopes among researchers like Gerald Schatten.

Dr. SCHATTEN: This study is a giant stride in the path that will bring us towards clinical-grade, therapeutic human stem cells.

HARRIS: The Korean scientists took skin samples mainly from people with spinal cord injuries because the scientists might ultimately be able to convert the stem cells into nerve cells and transplant them back into these patients. Unlike donated organs, these cells are a nearly perfect genetic match, so there's less risk that they'll be rejected. Leonard Zon, a pediatrician at Harvard, is hoping to use stem cells to treat sickle-cell anemia. He says it's a huge help to have a process for producing stem cells from specific individuals, but that's only half the challenge.

Dr. LEONARD ZON (Pediatrician, Harvard University; President, International Society for Stem Cell Research): The second area of research which is ongoing is how to convert embryonic stem cells into tissues and into organs. That area of research requires a significant effort over the coming years because the two of them together will actually be very useful in the treatment of disease.

HARRIS: Zon is also president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, which deals not just with the science but the ethical and political issues surrounding this work. He notes that US scientists aren't allowed to do research on these new stem-cell lines using federal research dollars.

Dr. ZON: But with private philanthropy, you can use the lines and study them, and so this is a case where private philanthropy can make a huge impact.

HARRIS: Private philanthropy or money from California state taxpayers. That state has a $3 billion fund set aside for stem-cell research. Now this advance is potentially another step along the path to cloning a human being, and that's one reason it's controversial. Most Americans are dead set against cloning people. Woo Suk Hwang also finds that idea deeply disturbing.

Mr. WOO: I hate some stupid scientifical researchers to produced cloned human beings.

HARRIS: It is, in fact, illegal under Korean law to clone a human being. That is not so under US law, though Congress is now debating a law that would put a ban on human cloning and that could ease the restrictions on using embryonic stem cells, like those from Korea, for research. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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