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Virgin Mega-Brand Launches Stem Cell Bank in Qatar

The British mega-brand Virgin has launched a stem-cell bank in Qatar. The country has lofty goals of becoming the world leader in stem cell technologies, and unlike in the West, Qatar does not face some of the ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research.

It was a lavish launch for the opening of Qatar's new research center that brought out billionaire Richard Branson and Qatar's royal family to the country's new Science and Technology Park.

Branson came to Qatar to open the Virgin Health Bank, the first in the region that collects stem cells from the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

"Qatar is a trusting exciting country, it has leaders with great vision," Branson said.

The sprawling new science center is part of the leaders' ambitious plans to make this small Gulf state the center for medical research and innovation. Virgin's plan is to store umbilical-cord stem cells after a mother has given birth.

A portion of those stem cells will be banked for that infant's future use in the event of medical needs. The remainder will be stored at a national public center for research and use by any patient with a matching tissue type. Cord-blood stem cells are used to treat leukemia as well as other blood-related illnesses.

Stem cells are the building blocks of life and highly prized for their ability to change into the cells of other tissues. The hope is that stem cell technology might someday be used to regenerate diseased, damaged or missing tissues and organs.

Though Virgin is only storing umbilical-cord blood stem cells, Qatar's scientists are open to working with the more controversial embryonic stem cells. Pro-life groups oppose the creation of embryonic stem lines because they require the destruction of a human embryo.

Bioethics expert Laurie Zoloth says the use of embryonic stem cells is controversial in the United States because of its large conservative Christian population.

"Their position is that stem-cell research is always illicit, it cannot be done because it involves the destruction of a human embryo and a human embryo is a full person from the moment of conception," she said.

But Dr. Hanan Al-Kuwari, the managing director of Hamad Medical Corporation, a health-care provider in Qatar, says the moral status of the embryo has a different meaning for Muslims. She says under Islamic belief a human embryo is not considered a human being until after 40 days from fertilization.

"Islam is a very modern religion and it really embraces science and it does not have some of the controversial issues that are in the West around stem-cell research," she said.

At a stem cell research conference in Qatar there was optimism about President Obama's recent lifting of the ban on the use of U.S. government funds for embryonic stem-cell research that was imposed by the Bush administration.

But Canadian Health Law Advisor Tim Caulfield says a consensus on stem-cell research is unlikely.

"Having a global policy on stem cell research is going to be a real challenge, even though we have seen Obama's announcement, even though we have seen exciting stem cell breakthroughs that seem to deal with some of the controversial issues, there is still a great moral divide," Caulfield said.

Richard Branson says he believes there is a lot of hope with stem cells and sees Qatar at the center of stem cells for the region.

"This cord-blood bank could actually end up being larger than the U.K.'s cord-blood bank quite quickly, I think," he said.

Millions of dollars have gone into the technology park and well-known institutes, such as Cornell University's biomedical research program, have opened in Doha. Qataris say that bodes well for their goal to become a magnet for top medical research.