Reports of a research breakthrough could bolster the cause of pro-lifers advocating ethical restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research. Scientists from Harvard and Wake Forest reported January 9 that cells found in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women are similar to embryonic stem cells. The researchers reported that cells could be extracted from prenatal testing and used to fight maladies such as spinal cord disorders or Parkinson's disease.

"This is a groundbreaking study, similar to the discovery of penicillin in the '30s and '40s," said Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association. "We now have a readily available, highly controllable source of cells where we are able to do things in medicine that we haven't been able to do before."

Dr. Anthony Atala, the Wake Forest University author of the study, told CT that cells found in amniotic fluid can be used to make muscle, brain, bone, and other tissues. In addition, the cells don't create the tumors caused by embryonic stem cells.

Atala said that 100,000 banked amniotic cells would provide genetic matches for almost everyone in the United States. These could cure diseases and make organs and body parts that closely match a patient's genetic profile. The cells can replicate quickly.

"We are certainly cautiously optimistic about [this research's] potential," Atala said. "We want to rush technologies to patients, but we have to make sure it's safe."

Pro-life advocates welcomed the breakthrough as an alternative to stem-cell research that destroys embryonic human life. But Atala said amniotic cells should not make embryonic stem-cell research irrelevant. He said researchers should find a way to use stem cells from embryos without discarding them.

News of the research did not immediately alter the political situation. Just two days after the report went public, the House of Representatives passed a bill 253 to 174 that would authorize federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. However, President Bush in 2006 vetoed a similar bill that had passed by a smaller 238 to 194 margin in 2005.

"Now he can argue that embryo destruction is not only unethical, it's also unnecessary. It's another arrow in the quiver," said Robert George, a Princeton University professor and member of the President's Council on Bioethics. "It seems to be everything to cheer about and nothing to be concerned about."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has a special section on life ethics.

The NIH section on stem-cells describes recent research.

Recent news on the breakthrough includes:

Superior Stem Cells Shunned By Media | Weekly Standard: Non-Embryonic Stem Cells Have Proven Potential That's Being Ignored (Weekly Standard)
Report: Amniotic fluid yields stem cells | Technique doesn't harm embryos; called 'giant step forward' for research (Associated Press)
Escaping a Moral Mess | Scientists may have found a way out of the quandary over whether to destroy embryos or cure people. (Newsweek)
Stem Cell Miracle? | An Advance This Side Of Bush's Moral Line (January 12, 2007)
'New stem cell source' discovered | US scientists say they have discovered a new source of stem cells that could one day repair damaged human organs. (BBC)

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