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Harvard researchers start human stem cell project

Written by: Staff
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BOSTON, June 7 (Reuters) Researchers at Harvard University said they had started efforts to clone human embryos as a source of valued stem cells, using all private money to bypass federal restrictions on such work.

They said they had undergone a lengthy review process both to assure the work would follow ethical standards, and to separate out all funding so that not a penny of federal money is spent on the effort.

''Our long-term goal is to create embryonic stem cells from a patient's tissues, correct the genetic defects, and get the repaired cells back into the patients,'' Dr. George Daley of Children's Hospital in Boston, one of the researchers said yesterday.

Human embryonic stem cell research is controversial because some people regard any experimentation on a human embryo to be unethical.

In 2001 President George W. Bush restricted the use of federal money for human embryonic stem cell work to a few existing batches of cells.

Researchers protested, saying embryonic stem cells have the potential to transform medicine. They said the batches eligible for federal support were not sufficient to do the needed research.

Experts believe that it may someday be possible to remove a plug of skin from a patient and reprogram its cells to begin growing into a perfectly matched transplant of tissue to treat, for example, Parkinson's disease, or even a missing organ.

Stem cell research could be used to gain insights into diseases such as cancer, diabetes and genetic defects.

The secret lies in the unique qualities of stem cells, which are the body's master cells. Embryonic stem cells are especially powerful because they can produce any kind of tissue in the body and can be grown, virtually immortal, in lab dishes.

RIVAL LEGISLATION The US Congress has been divided over the issue. Supporters of the research want to direct more federal funding toward the work while opponents want to ban it altogether and rival stem cell bills have never made it past the initial stages.

The field is marred by scandals. Earlier this year a South Korean researcher who claimed to have cloned human embryos and obtained stem cells from them was found to have falsified his reports on the work.

Several groups have claimed to have cloned actual human babies, although they have never produced any evidence to support their claims.

The Boston researchers eventually want to use cloning technology to make days-old embryos that could then be used as a source of stem cells.

This process is called nuclear transfer and involves taking the nucleus from a cell, such as a skin cell, inserting it into a human egg cell and reprogramming the egg cell so it starts growing as a human embryo.

Another way to clone embryos is to use the nucleus from a cell taken from a week-old embryo and Daley said they will start here, using leftover embryos from a Harvard fertility clinic.

''Using an embryonic cell rather than a skin cell will increase the chances that nuclear transfer will be successful, because the nucleus of an embryonic cell is much easier to reprogram than the nucleus of a skin cell,'' he said.

''This will allow us to answer some basic questions of stem cell biology while becoming technically proficient in creating stem cell lines.'' Several private companies are known to be working on the same goal, as are scientists in Britain.

Reuters LR GC0850

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