Stem Cell Obscurantism

On May 19, a group of Korean scientists published in the magazine Science the results of research that for the first time isolated human embryonic stem cell lines specifically tailored to match the DNA of male and female patients of various ages. The next day, British scientists at Newcastle University announced that they had successfully produced a cloned human embryo using donated eggs and genetic material from stem cells.

Both breakthroughs constitute a stunning advance in stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning that they have the ability to develop into any type of human tissue. This carries great promise, in particular, for sufferers of spinal cord injuries and diseases. Years of studies, and the passionate pleas of patients worldwide, are finally opening the way to a technique – somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as “therapeutic cloning” – that may bring about epochal changes for the health of us all.

No less remarkable than the latest discoveries was the timing of their announcement, which came on the eve of a vote in the United States Congress to expand federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells created during in vitro fertilization (but never implanted in a womb). Both announcements also came a month ahead of an Italian referendum – the largest popular consultation on the matter ever held anywhere – that seeks to change a law adopted last year that prohibits both in vitro fertilization and stem cell research.

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