ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Today, scientists unveiled a new technique that they say could break the political deadlock over human embryonic stem cells. Those are the special cells that researchers hope could be used for dramatic new medical treatments. Obtaining the cells has always meant destroying embryos, something that is unacceptable to many people, including President Bush.
Well now, researchers say they can get stem cells without harming an embryo. But not everyone is convinced, as NPR's Nell Boyce reports.
NELL BOYCE: A couple of years ago, a biologist named Robert Lanza was at conference when someone asked him a question: why do scientists have to destroy embryos to get stem cells? Couldn't they learn a lesson from fertility clinics? Those clinics routinely remove a single cell from an embryo for genetic testing to make sure the baby will be healthy. Hundreds of children have been born after these tests. So couldn't scientists also remove a single cell and use it to create more stem cells?
ROBERT LANZA: I responded basically saying that that would be a great idea, but we don't know how to do that.
BOYCE: One of the problems is that single cells are lonely and don't grow.
LANZA: You know, if you pluck a cell out of an embryo and place it into a plastic dish, it's obviously not going to be happy.
BOYCE: But the question got Lanza thinking. He works at a company called Advanced Cell Technology, near Boston.
LANZA: And when I came back from the meeting, I was going down the steps to the building. And I hit myself on the side of the head and said, ah-ha! I know how to do that.
BOYCE: He realized that a single cell might have a shot if it shared its lab dish with some special roommates, some other cells that already know how to be embryonic stem cells.
LANZA: If we could give it some company, and some company that would give it the right signals - the right environmental cues that say uh-huh, you're supposed to be an embryonic stem cell - that that might be sufficient.
BOYCE: So his lab took donated embryos and started trying. The result? Two dishes of new stem cells, each grown from a single cell. Lanza says this way of producing stem cells shouldn't be controversial.
LANZA: Many people, including President Bush, are concerned about destroying life in order to save life. However, this study shows now that it's possible to create embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo, and thus without destroying its potential for life.
BOYCE: The results appear in the journal Nature. Lanza says his company's next step is to work with a fertility clinic. The clinic would talk to clients that are having their embryos screened for genetic diseases and ask them to donate a cell. Technicians would take one cell from the embryo, as usual. But then they'd wait a few hours. If the cell divided into two, one would go for testing. The other would be used for Lanza's research.
Some scientists say the idea is intriguing, but they urge caution. Arnold Kriegstein is a stem cell researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
ARNOLD KRIEGSTEN: Any advance of this sort, exciting as it may be, would really need to be replicated before we can really embrace it wholeheartedly.
BOYCE: Other experts question whether families undergoing genetic testing will want to participate. And even if they do, scientists couldn't get federal funds under the current White House policy. If that policy changed, there's still another hurdle. James Battey is the head of the stem cell task force at the National Institutes of Health. He says Congress has barred federal funding for any research that poses a serious risk to the embryo.
JAMES BATTEY: Can we say with absolute assurance that removal of a single cell from an eight- cell embryo doesn't damage the embryo in any way? The answer is no, we don't know that.
BOYCE: There have been no long-term studies of the children born after single- cell removals. That's one reason some experts are skeptical that this new study will end the ethical debate. Nell Boyce, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And you can hear Robert Lanza discussing details of his team's new method for creating stem cells at our Web site, npr.org.