Accessibility links


US Expands Embryonic Stem Cell Research

  • Carol Pearson

The US government is once again funding human embryonic stem cell research, at least for the time being. A U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC is allowing funding until arguments can be heard in the next few weeks. We look at medical advances that might be possible with embryonic stem cells.

Sixteen year old Katie Cramer is in a battle with leukemia. She urgently needs a bone marrow transplant. In July, in search of a donor, her American mother Sherri Cramer flew to the city in southern China where she and her husband adopted Katie.

"Without a bone marrow or a stem cell transplant, she will not survive," said Sherri Cramer.

Many people in Liuzhou have responded by getting their blood tested, and they continue to respond, to help find someone who shares Katie's genetic background. Doctors are still waiting for a perfect match.

Bone marrow transplants are just one example of how stem cell therapy is already helping patients.

President Obama wants to expand research using human embryonic stem cells.

Last year he signed an executive order to expand federal funding for this research. Advocates say these cells could one day help doctors cure spinal cord injuries and diseases such as Parkinson's.

Opponents argue that destroying a human embryo is destroying a human being.

Although researchers would like to expand federal funding for work on embryonic stem cells, some scientists say it is unlikely that these cells will be used in clinical practice. One of them is Professor Tim McCaffrey at George Washington University.

"An embryonic stem cell, when it is put in a person, it wants to form an embryo," said Professor McCaffrey. "It wants to form an entire body."

Professor McCaffrey says the value in embryonic stem cell research lies in learning the process of development.

"The most vital research that is dependent on it is anything that involves those very, very early decisions by the stem cell. Those first few decisions that take you from an ovacite - from an egg - into an embryo. So developmental biologists that are studying how a heart cell becomes a heart or a brain cell becomes a neuron, those are the most impacted, those very early decisions."

Once the process is understood, scientists say they can figure out how to get other cells to regenerate and that could hold out the promise of a cure for Parkinson's and other diseases.