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Political Battle Surrounds New Scientific Research on Stem Cells

By Aaron Zitner

Offering new hope for diabetics, scientists on Thursday reported the latest marvel from stem cell research: mouse embryo cells that can grow into the insulin-producing section of the pancreas.

The report from researchers at the National Institutes of Health, which appears Friday in the journal Science, raises the remarkable prospect that scientists may someday be able to grow human organs in the lab that can be transplanted into patients.

But the latest news about stem cells is more than a dispatch from the lab. It is also a cause for new skirmishes in the widening political war over whether to fund potentially life-saving stem cell research.

Other teams have induced embryo cells to grow into simple structures, but the NIH team has shown that a single embryo cell can grow into a more complex organ involving four different cell types, scientists who reviewed the study said.

“In trying to make replacement tissues for diabetics, this is the most important paper that has appeared in a decade,” said Douglas Melton, chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Stem cells are powerful cells that give rise to other, more specialized types of cells in the body. Scientists hope to grow stem cells into replacement parts for patients: heart tissue for cardiac patients, brain cells for people with Parkinson’s disease, and insulin-producing cells for the nation’s 16 million diabetics.

The NIH wants to offer its first-ever funding for experiments using stem cells from human embryos, which many scientists say are the most potent and versatile. Antiabortion groups, however, are lobbying President Bush to block the money on grounds that destroying human embryos is immoral and unnecessary. They say that somewhat different types of stem cells found in adults are proving to be as versatile as cells from embryos.