NEW YORK — An advance in stem cell research that was intended to resolve moral differences over the promising but controversial field has ignited fresh conflict instead.
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Because stem cells can turn into virtually any type of human tissue, they hold promise for treating a host of human maladies. But critics have argued that creating the cells for research is wrong because it requires the destruction of human embryos in their earliest stages.
Scientists say the field's progress is seriously hampered by federal funding restrictions that are motivated by those moral objections.
Last week, the California biotech company Advanced Cell Technology proposed a way out of the impasse. Writing in the scientific journal Nature, ACT researchers described a way to make stem cells from single cells that had been removed from embryos. Because fertility doctors routinely remove single cells from embryos for genetic testing and then successfully implant them, the technique could in theory be used to create stem cells without destroying human embryos.
An e-mail sent to reporters by Nature before the paper's online publication stated that company researchers "have been able to generate new lines of cultured embryonic stem (ES) cells while leaving the embryo intact."
In reality, however, the embryos used by the company were destroyed in the course of developing the method. The researchers removed an average of five to six cells from each embryo rather than one to improve their chances of success. Removing that many cells at such an early stage of development effectively destroys an embryo.
Within hours of the paper's release, the journal issued a pair of clarifications to the original e-mail that corrected the mistake. But several media outlets included the error in their own accounts.
The Associated Press' stories did not address the fate of the embryos, instead focusing solely on the technique.
Robert Lanza, vice president of research and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, said the technique is the important thing, not how it was developed.
"The concept and implications of the study remain completely unchanged," he said.
Critics of stem cell research said the company had not been sufficiently clear about how their experiments were conducted.
"I'm not saying the Nature article was false, but it certainly misled a lot of people," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Company officials protested that the fate of embryos in their laboratory has no bearing on the scientific value of the research that comes out of it. Using the techniques they developed, they said, future researchers can create stem cells without destroying embryos.
Having such a capability could be useful because U.S. law currently bans federal funding of any research that harms human embryos. In an August 2001 decision, President Bush allowed federal funding for research on the few dozen cell lines that had been created up to that point. But researchers say they need hundreds of lines to move the science forward.
"I think the degree of protest here is the result of the importance of this breakthrough," said Ronald Green, chairman of Advanced Cell Technology's ethics advisory board and a professor of religion at Dartmouth College. "If the president were to turn around tomorrow and authorize stem cell lines produced in this way, in two years' time we could have three to four hundred stem cells lines."
Other scientists have expressed reservations about the significance of the research, saying that it needs to be confirmed through replication. Many would prefer to keep creating stem cells using the current technology, which requires the destruction of embryos about five days into development. At that stage, they constitute a ball of about 100 to 150 cells.
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