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The House today is expected to vote on a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Both the House and the Senate passed the same legislation last year, and then President Bush vetoed the bill. Mr. Bush has said he's impressed by the promise of stem cell research but troubled by the fact that to create human embryonic stem cells you must destroy a human embryo.
NPR's Joe Palca has this story on what scientists have learned about embryonic stem cells, and why they're so intent on studying them.
JOE PALCA: There's an obvious reason scientists want to know more about embryonic stem cells. Many diseases occur when a specific type of tissue stops working. Neurons in the case of Parkinson's Disease, or insulin producing cells in the case of diabetes. Since embryonic stem cells can turn into any tissue type in the body, they could become a kind of universal repair kit. That's the promise. But for all their power, neuroscientist Dennis Steindler of the University of Florida says, embryonic stem cells are kind of immature.
Professor DENNIS STEINDLER (Neurobiology, University of Florida): They are sort of like children that have to be told what to do. They're very, very interested in doing a whole lot of things, and sometimes they may get carried away with it. If they build too much tissue and they do it inappropriately, then the word cancer comes in to the picture.
PALCA: Because cancer is basically cells growing widely out of control.
Mr. STEINDLER: We don't want to be putting these cells into anybody before we understand how to control them.
PALCA: Steindler says researchers are making progress controlling embryonic stem cells. They're also making progress harnessing the power of stem cells that can be obtained without destroying an embryo. These so-called adult stem cells have been found in bone marrow fat cells and even amniotic fluid. But Steindler says it's too soon to say what kind of stem cells will be most useful for therapy.
And he says scientists need to push forward on all fronts. If the popular appeal of stem cells comes from their ability to regenerate tissue, some scientists think the study of embryonic stem cells will have a more immediate benefit elsewhere. Marie Csete studies stem cells at Emory University and Georgia Tech.
Dr. MARIE CSETE (Anesthesiologist, Emory University and Georgia Tech): But I think that the big bang early on is going to be that these cells are our window into the very earliest human development. We haven't had that before. We know much more about how worms and mice develop than we know about how humans develop and how diseases are patterned in a cell very early on.
PALCA: And knowing more about human development may lead to treatments for diseases that occur during pregnancy, or even prevent ones that occur in adulthood. There's no question that embryonic stem cells have prompted a national debate. Nobel Prize winner Tom Cech blames the polarized nature of the debate on restrictions the Bush administration has placed on the research. Check is president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Mr. TOM CECH (President, Howard Hughes Medical Institute): Frankly, it's caused some scientists who are normally very careful about what they might promise to be pushed out on to a precipice and to start promising hopeful medical cures, which, really, it's premature to know whether those are downstream or not.
PALCA: But Cech is certain research on embryonic stem cells will give scientists a better understanding of early human development. And neuroscientist Dennis Steindler is equally certain there will be medical benefits.
Mr. STEINDLER: We will see diseases treated and cured. There's absolutely no question about it.
PALCA: In today's Congressional debate there are bound to be legislators who embrace Steindler's prognostication and those who don't.
Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
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