Catholic groups reject claims of stem cells breakthrough

The US bishops and pro-life groups have been quick to pour cold water on claims published yesterday in Nature magazine that stem cells can be grown successfully from a single cell plucked without harm from a three-day old embryo.

The new technique which has been hailed as "remarkable" by British experts has been developed by a Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technology, and involves plucking a single cell from a human embryo when it is still a tiny bundle of eight cells, the British Daily Mail reports.

The technique is similar to one already used in IVF clinics to screen embryos for rare diseases.

The US scientists showed that, once removed, the cell can be coaxed in the laboratory into growing into numerous different cell types, including those found in the eye, liver, skin and nerves.

Crucially, the embryo itself is not harmed in any way, researcher Professor Robert Lanza told Nature.

"What we have done for the first time is to create human stem cells without destroying the embryo itself," Professor Lanza said.

The remaining seven cells are not damaged, allowing the embryo to continue to develop healthily, he added.

However, others scientists warned that the technique is still in the early stages. They say the yield is very low, with lots of embryos being used to create just a few stem cells.

They also have reservations about removing cells - or carrying out biopsies - from embryos.

Professor Peter Braude, of King's College London, told the Daily Mail that "whilst this is a huge technical achievement, I am more sceptical about its clinical usefulness.

"We don't undertake embryo biopsy willy-nilly, as it is better not to remove a cell from a developing embryo unless one really has to."

Pro-Life bodies were even more sceptical with Julia Millington of the Pro-Life Alliance asking: "Would anyone want to implant an embryo that has been subjected to this sort of process?"

Matthew O'Gorman from the Life charity said that "while the embryo may not be destroyed during this procedure, the human being is still treated as a means to an end; a laboratory tool for us to use as we wish.

"Regardless of the speculated benefits, no human being, particularly the most vulnerable, should be treated as raw material which we can manipulate and manufacture," Mr O'Gorman said.

A representative of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was also extremely doubtful about the new technique saying that it "raises more ethical questions than it answers."

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of Pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says Professor Lanza's methods are unacceptable for several reasons, including the fact that the experiments leading to his recent advance - although done to develop a technique that would preserve embryos - actually destroyed embryos in the process.

"It does not solve the ethical dilemma," Doerflinger told Newseek. "It'd be irresponsible to claim now that this is totally safe."

Stem cells created without harming embryos (Daily Mail, 23/8/06)
New method makes embryo-safe stem cells (Houston Chronicla, 23/8/06)
US firm makes "ethical" embryo stem cells (Reuters, 23/8/06)
Scientific Sidestep? (Newsweek, 23/8/06)

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