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Ethicists Divided Over Human Embryo Research

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Feb. 22, 2000 (Washington) -- Using existing cultured human embryo cells for research purposes is morally acceptable, according to representatives of several prominent bioethics committees. But the ethicists disagreed about whether it is appropriate to create new cells from very early human embryos.

The panelists discussed controversial issues related to human embryo cell research in Washington Tuesday at a symposium of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The specific cells that the panelists discussed are called "stem cells," and they are cultured human cells that have the potential to develop into almost any of the body's different tissues, such as bone, heart, or brain tissue, according to John Gearhart, PhD, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Such cells can be obtained from certain tissues in adult humans, such as bone marrow, and from very early human embryos.

Scientists believe that stem cell research could lead to a variety of new therapies that might be able to repair damaged or diseased organs, says Thomas Okarma, president and chief executive officer of Geron Corporation, a company that funded much of the early research on human embryo stem cells.

Currently, "we are powerless to urge a diseased or damaged organ to repair itself," Okarma says. "That's the excitement, and that's the potential of this technology."

Gearhart says that stem cells from human embryos are different from stem cells derived from adult tissues, and are better suited for both research and medical purposes. That's because these cells generate youthful tissue rather than aged tissue and are therefore better suited for tissue repair.

But some people, particularly those with pro-life views, think that cells derived from human embryos should neither be created nor used for medical purposes, regardless of the potential medical benefits, says Ronald Green, PhD, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Green was a member of a panel convened by AAAS to tackle these thorny ethical issues.

Both scientists and ethicists distinguish between two types of embryonic stem cells: those obtained from very early human embryos produced by fertilization in a test tube, and those produced by sperm or egg cells in the early stages of development obtained from electively aborted fetuses,

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