STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Scientists announced yesterday they've devised a new way of making human embryonic stem cells. They say they can do it without destroying the embryo. This new method amounts to an answer to those who contend that destroying an embryo destroys human life.
Here's Robert Lanza, the leader of the research team.
Mr. ROBERT LANZA (Scientific Director, Advanced Cell Technology): 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.
INSKEEP: Joining us now to talk about the new technique is Kathy Hudson. She is director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome to the program.
Ms. KATHY HUDSON (Director, Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University): Good morning.
INSKEEP: Can you explain in basic terms what happens here?
Ms. HUDSON: Well, what the research group describes is taking an embryo as would be produced in in vitro fertilization, which is very widespread, allowing the embryo to develop until it has about eight cells or ten cells, and then removing a single cell and using that cell to derive embryonic stem cells.
INSKEEP: So you have an embryo that can still grow to become a child, come to term, and you have this cell that you can use for medical research that people think might eventually be valuable.
Ms. HUDSON: that's what's claimed. This technique of removing a single cell from an embryo has been used clinically for a number of years in order to test embryos for serious and life-threatening diseases before a pregnancy is started. So in this case, what the technique is really doing is using that single cell, being able to derive the stem cells and also be able to do the genetic testing that presumably the parents of this embryo would want to have done.
INSKEEP: How might this affect the overall stem cell debate?
Ms. HUDSON: Well, the argument against using embryos that are leftover from in vitro fertilization and no longer wanted is that it involves the intentional destruction of a human embryo. The quandary that we have now is that removing a single cell from an embryo, while it can produce a live-born healthy child, does present some risks. It requires incredibly good hands. And we still don't know the long-term health effects on the resulting child that develops from such an embryo.
So while it solves some ethical and political quandaries, it may in fact raise other, more knotty questions.
INSKEEP: Which seems to be where the White House is. President Bush, of course, vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding for stem cell research. And the White House issued a statement saying nice technique, but it doesn't answer all the ethical questions.
Ms. HUDSON: I think we need to do some more work here to see what in fact happens. Lanza's paper describes having been able to derive stem cells from half of the embryos. For the other half of the embryos that would mean that they would not be available to do genetic testing, and thus those wanted embryos may be lost as a consequence.
INSKEEP: Do you think that even though in your view this breakthrough has not ended the debate over stem cell research, that it has at least moved it forward?
Ms. HUDSON: I think there are a number of possibilities for moving this forward. I'm not sure this particular advance is really going to solve our problems. If it turns out that we can do this effectively without any adverse consequences for the resulting children, certainly. But that is going to require a lot of research, whereas I think advocates for stem cell research now would argue we can do this research with embryos that would otherwise be frozen into perpetuity or destroyed, so why don't we just move forward?
INSKEEP: Kathy Hudson, good to talk with you.
Ms. HUDSON: Likewise.
INSKEEP: Kathy Hudson is director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University.
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