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Stem Cell Debate Returns to Senate

Bill Bans Cloned Babies but Allows Embryonic Disease Study
WebMD Health News

April 21, 2005 -- Lawmakers relaunched their effort to expand medical research using embryonic stem cells. They predict that they will have enough support to push the controversial measure through the Senate.

The measure sets up a new showdown between a growing number of lawmakers who want to boost funding for the research and those who equate it with abortion and seek to ban it outright.

Supporters say the bill would allow important disease research to proceed under strict ethical guidelines. At the same time it bans procedures that could produce a cloned human child. They also argued that federal research standards are now needed to reconcile what has become a "patchwork" of state laws governing the use of research embryos.

The bill restricts embryonic stem cell research to a procedure often called "therapeutic cloning," also known as embryo cloning. The process inserts human DNA from an adult cell into an unfertilized human egg cell. The added DNA allows the cells to divide and produce a human embryo that contains stem cells. Those embryonic stem cells or "master cells" can in turn give rise to dozens of types of human tissue.

Researchers say that cells from the human embryo could then be transplanted back into the original (DNA) donor for therapeutic purposes. The technique offers the chance to cure chronic and degenerative diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's disease. With this technique, unlike transplantation of organs, there is no fear of tissue rejection. This type of cloning allows the creation of a perfect match of tissues.

Limits on Stem Cells

But the bill limits research to embryos 14 days or younger, a time when it shows no human qualities and cannot survive on its own. It also requires the National Institutes of Health to set strict ethical guidelines, including a ban on the sale of embryos or eggs.

The proposal also outlaws cloning as a means of reproduction to produce a child, and it exacts a 10-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine on any scientist who attempts to do the procedure.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the bill's lead sponsor and also one of the strongest abortion foes in the Congress, says embryonic cell research is vital to mounting "a major effort" against a host of diseases.

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