Remember all the hubbub last year over Bush's limits on embryonic stem-cell research? It turns out, reports the Chicago Tribune, that those limits don't cover research on fetuses at all.

"The Bush administration has approved the first federally funded project using stem cells obtained from fetuses aborted up to eight weeks after conception," the Tribune reported yesterday. "Because of a discrepancy in regulations, stem cells taken from fetuses are subject to different rules than similar cells from embryos. In fact, the cells derived from fetuses may qualify for a broader range of federal funds, government experts said. … Days-old embryos have some protections that 8-week-old fetuses don't."

John Gearhart of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his team of researchers received a $150,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the use of fetal cells in treating diabetes. The cells, called embryonic germ cells, came from fetuses aborted between five to eight weeks of development. Gearhart says the germ cells are just as versatile as embryonic stem cells. "If you look at the history of these cells, they basically are doing the same thing [as embryonic stem cells], they just represent a different source," he told the Tribune.

Know what else does basically the same thing as embryonic stem cells? Stem cells derived from adult bone marrow. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported yesterday, biologists at the University of Minnesota continue to have promising results with these cells, which no one opposes on bioethical grounds.

Even The New York Times had to admit that adult stem cells are in many ways preferable to embryonic ones. "But research on stem cells derived from embryos has progressed farther and faster than work on adult stem cells and is still vitally important," it maintained in an editorial yesterday. "Both lines of research should be pursued simultaneously. It will take years before scientists sort out which approach is more promising, and for what diseases—or whether either will ultimately pay off—so abandoning one now could be tantamount to substantially delaying developing therapies."

And now there appears to be a third way, which seems at least as problematic as experiments on embryos. (By the way, the usual definition of when an embryo is considered a fetus is eight weeks. But if these are taken "from fetuses aborted between eight to five weeks of development," doesn't that mean several aren't fetuses anyway?) "White House officials said Bush left the Clinton guidelines for fetal-derived cells in place because Congress passed a law in 1993 that made it illegal for presidents to ban funding for such research," the Tribune's Jeremy Manier reported.

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Weblog isn't familiar with this law but does remember a 1995 law that banned using federal money for biomedical research on embryos (the Clinton administration got around it by allowing researchers to experiment on embryos from third parties, like fertility and abortion clinics).

There's not a lot of commentary yet on this story at prolife organizations' websites, though Family Research Council President Ken Connor has one quote in the Tribune: "If [President Bush] is faithful to the principles he enunciated in the campaign, my hope is you'd begin to see change."

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