Thursday, February 12, 2004

You Can't Stem the Stem-Cell Tide

This is fantastic news:
South Korean and U.S. researchers said Wednesday they had cloned a human embryo and extracted from it sought-after cells called embryonic stem cells. The cloning was not intended to make human babies, but the first step toward developing cures for diabetes, Parkinson's and other diseases, the researchers said.

The experiment, the first published report of cloned human stem cells, means so-called therapeutic cloning is no longer a theory but a reality. Supporters of medical cloning say it can transform medicine, offering tailored and highly effective treatments for diseases. They say it could eventually lead to grow-your-own organ transplants.
As anyone who's spoken to me on the subject will tell you, I am bullish on both cloning and stem-cell technologies. In the past, I’ve predicted that these technologies, separately or in concert, will substantially extend the human lifespan within the next 20 or 30 years (if not sooner). However, the political resistance to both types of research, exemplified by Bush’s limitations on the use of fetal stem cells and his desire to ban all human cloning, dampened my excitement somewhat. Today’s news reignites it. Even if political opposition slows down or stops the research in the US, it will assuredly occur elsewhere in the world. Note that while both Americans and South Koreans are credited, the actual experiments took place in South Korea.

In casual conversation, some people have given me skeptical looks when I’ve suggested that stem-cell and cloning research are closely related and will eventually merge. Today’s news confirms my suspicions. The cloning process was used to create embryonic stem cells with genetic codes identical (or nearly identical) to those of adult human beings. Stem cells have the potential to grow into any form of human tissue. Thus, we may eventually be able to grow new human organs that are exact genetic matches for recipients, a development that could both alleviate the organ shortage and decrease the frequency of organ rejection.

Keep eating your Wheaties, folks. You don’t want to die before the fruit of this groundbreaking research ripens enough for general use!

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