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A Question Of Ethics

Studies published in the journal Science and in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report that human stem cells can be grown from fetal or embryonic tissue.

Eventually, this process could lead to growing organs and bones, nerves, and muscles for transplantation. Despite the fact that this could make a huge difference in the battle against a host of diseases, the ethical consequences are large.

Dr. Arthur Caplan of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia says the ability to grow human stem cells is "an amazing discovery. It's something that medicine and science has been hoping would turn out to be true: To find a cell that you can transform into almost any cell imaginable and use it for therapies, for transplant. It really is the potential to make vast and amazing advances."

However, Caplan adds, more research is needed, and this will undoubtedly reignite the debate on using fetal or embryonic tissue in stem cell research. "People are worried that it's wrong to use embryos. So I think we're going to seeÂ…the push [in Congress] from patient groups to let the research move forward, the push from right-to-life groups to say, 'Don't use these embryos. This is wrong'."

Caplan also notes that while the federal ban on fetal cell research was removed, getting funding for such research through Congress is tough. So most research is still being done using private money (and all research using embryos is privately funded). That really slows up the research. He notes also that any successful results will be privately owned, limiting who can benefit and how much it will cost.

Caplan says he would support those who would say the ability to get victims of disease out of wheelchairs overrides the moral question of embryo use. But, he emphasizes, "We shouldn't be making embryos just to do this thing. There are 20,000 spare embryos now that no one wants, frozen, and can be used for this. They will be destroyed otherwise. That's the place we have to turn to do the research."

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