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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

The Future of Stem Cells

Disease Research Hindered by Reproductive Cloning Threat, Experts Say
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Cloning and Stem Cell Research continued...

"It might help to get away from the issue of cloning and talk about the deliberate creation of special embryos," Charo says. "There will be a small number of experiments that cannot be done with discarded embryos. Those are the experiments that look at the genetic mechanisms of the causes of disease."

If that seems vague, Charo has a specific example: breast cancer. Two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, give a woman a very, very high risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

"Their alternatives are awful: We can rip out their ovaries and throw them into early menopause. We can cut off their breasts. Or we can wait and watch to see whether they develop cancer," Charo says. "The better thing is to understand what is going on to make this mutation cause cancer."

Using SCNT, cells from a woman carrying the BRCA mutation could be used to create an embryo carrying the mutation. From this embryo, scientists could obtain stem cells. And from these stem cells it would be possible grow laboratory cultures of ovarian and breast tissues.

"Now you can find out why this is causing cancer," Charo says. "And this gives you an opportunity to disrupt this sequence of events. Now you are on the way to an intervention that doesn't require mutilation of women's bodies. This you cannot do with discarded embryos."

The Politics of Stem Cells

Federal laws regarding stem cells appear to be in a stalemate. But several states are seizing the initiative.

"Stem cell people are being successful," Caplan says. "They have swung opinion in California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts in favor of stem cell research. In those places, talk about cloning research has gone into the back seat."

Indeed, California is about to vote on Proposition 71, which would generate $3 billion for stem cell research.

Why? Money, say Caplan and Charo. With an eye to the future, states see the opportunity to attract biotechnology companies.

"States are beginning to recognize there is a tremendous economic opportunity in terms of an edge in the biotech sector," Charo says. "So I think people who are middling on abortion issues are being moved to support stem cell research on cells from embryos that are going to be discarded any way. They don't want to be left behind."

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