Sunday, June 13, 2004

A solution to the stem-cell dilemma

As shown by the June 6 Forum, pro-life and pro-choice proponents are at odds over stem cell research. Embryonic human life and abortion are at the core of the debate. However, society does not have to choose between life and unlimited stem cell research.

The object of interest in this research is the pluripotent stem cell. This cell is the starting block for all body components from bone to brain to nerves to organs. These pluripotent stem cells offer the broadest research possibilities. The opportunity to repair or replace parts of the body with stem cell technology is an exciting vision. Few would argue except for the "beginning of human life" debate.

Pluripotent stem cells have been isolated from both embryos and fetal tissue. A group of scientists led by developmental biologist Dr. James Thomson from The University of Wisconsin-Madison, isolated stem cells from embryos. Dr. John D. Gearhart, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, isolated such cells from fetal tissue. The National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Primer indicates these sources yield very similar pluripotent stem cells.

How then can unlimited stem cell research proceed in light of the ongoing debate? The answer lies with the source of the stem cells and a unique organ donor concept.

There is a source of early gestational tissue that should find favor with both sides of the debate - excised fetal tissue from ectopic pregnancies. Ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg lodges in the fallopian tubes and develops outside the womb. These pregnancies are never viable. Surgical removal of the fetal tissue to protect the mother's life remains the treatment of choice. Ectopic pregnancies are estimated at 1 percent of all pregnancies and could be a source of widely varying stem cell lines. Rather than limiting federal funding to existing embryonic stem cell lines, researchers could pursue unlimited research without moral implications.

Donation of this ectopic fetal tissue for stem cell research would provide the research community and parents a positive outcome from an unfortunate event. This ectopic pregnancy donor approach provides a tissue source for unlimited stem cell research. President Bush should modify his previously stated policy and allow federal funding of research on all stem cell lines derived from this approach. Researchers should embrace this source of pluripotent stem cells to move forward without further moral debate.

Mel Barbera of Liberty Township, a University of Wisconsin alumnus, is a retired chemical engineer for P&G.

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