Tampering with human embryonic stem cells has been at the forefront of ethical debates for a decade.  Behind it, though, lurks an even more alarming prospect: the creation of human-animal hybrids.  As with embryos, the appeal has been to improve human health.  But ethicists ask if there is any benefit worth blurring the line between humans and animals.  Pro-chimera advocates admit there is a certain “disgust” factor that could arouse public anxiety, and agree that experimentation would need to be regulated.  But who would regulate the regulators, and on what moral grounds?

Meanwhile, tensions between advocates of embryonic stem cells (ESC) and adult stem cells (ASC) continue.  ESC advocates received an unexpected boost this week when an appeals court reversed an earlier ruling that halted federal funding of ESC research (New Scientist, PhysOrg).  A 2009 lawsuit had been brought by two ASC researchers who claimed that “who argued that Obama’s expansion [of ESC research funding]  jeopardized their ability to win government funding for research using adult stem cells – ones that have already matured to create specific types of tissues – because it will mean extra competition”  (02/13/2011).  The appeals court overturned Judge Lamberth’s argument that such funding violated the Dickey-Wicker amendment that prohibits federal funding of research that destroys human embryos.  The surprise reversal pretty much ended the plaintiffs’ case, and gives a green light for federally-funded ESC research.  According to PhysOrg, “the scientific community applauded the ruling” as did NIH Director Francis Collins, who said, “This ruling will help ensure this groundbreaking research can continue to move forward.”  From the coverage by both New Scientist and PhysOrg, it appears that the ethical concerns so prominent in the George Bush era have been almost forgotten.

Adult stem cell research continues to offer promising treatments, while news about embryonic stem cell progress is notable for its absence.  In just the last ten days, these gains were reported for ASC research:

  • Researchers improve method to create induced pluripotent stem cells (PhysOrg).
  • Researchers create reprogrammed stem cells for disease studies (PhysOrg).
  • Patients’ own kidney cells could cure kidney disease (Medical Xpress).
  • Fibroblast Growth Factor-2 Primes Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells for Enhanced Chondrogenesis (PLoS One).
  • Gladstone scientist converts human skin cells into functional brain cells (Medical Xpress).
  • Doctors begin major bone marrow stem cell trial for Multiple Sclerosis patients (BBC News)….

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