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US Institute for Stem Cell Research: Human embryos may be cloned

Stanford University in the USA announced yesterday the establishment of a new stem cell research institute, in which stem cells extracted from human embryos can become any of the types of cells in the body 

By: Tamara Traubman 
Stanford University in the USA announced yesterday the establishment of a new stem cell research institute, in which stem cells extracted from human embryos can transform into any of the types of cells in the body. The announcement rekindled a poignant public debate in the US, after the head of the new institute, Prof. Irving Weissman, said that there is a possibility that the institute's scientists will try to clone human embryos and extract embryonic stem cells from them for research purposes.

Many doctors and scientists believe that fetal stem cells have great medical potential. According to them, it is possible that in the future it will be possible to provide patients with new tissues through them. Among other things, the scientists suggest turning the stem cells into cells that produce insulin and transplanting them into the pancreas of diabetics, or turning them into brain cells and transplanting them into the brains of Parkinson's or Alzheimer's patients under the cells destroyed by the disease.

In Israel and some European countries, the law permits the research of stem cells from human embryos. On the other hand, US President George Bush announced in August 2001 that from now on research on stem cells extracted from human embryos would be prohibited after his announcement. However, the restriction does not apply to researchers working with private research budgets. The new institute at Stanford will be financed with the help of 12 million dollars, which was donated by an unknown source, so the limit established by Bush does not apply to it.
In his announcement, Weissman said that the institute's scientists will initially study embryonic stem cells of mice and study adult stem cells that are extracted from the body of an adult animal. According to him, at a later stage the researchers will try to produce human embryonic stem cells and will examine two possible sources for their production.

In one method, a cell nucleus - which contains almost all the genes - will be transplanted into an existing embryonic stem cell. The cell will divide, multiply and become an embryo. When the embryo is about five days old, the stem cells will come out of it. The resulting cells will be a genetic copy of the cell that donated the nucleus.

In the second method, often referred to as "medical cloning", a cell nucleus will be implanted inside an egg whose nucleus has been removed. The egg will begin to develop into an embryo and about five days later - when the embryo reaches the stage known as "blastocyst" - stem cells will be produced from it and destroy the embryo. The first steps in this method are similar to the method used to clone animals such as Dolly the sheep. However, unlike animal cloning, the embryo will not be implanted in the womb and will not develop into an adult creature, but will be destroyed while at the earliest stage of its development. Supporters of this method emphasize the difference between "medical cloning" which aims to clone embryos for the purpose of research and drug development, and human cloning which aims to clone embryos that will develop into humans, as a replacement for existing fertilization methods.

According to Prof. Weissman, the institute will choose which method to use based on preliminary studies that will be done in mice. "We want to establish new stem cell lines in the best possible way," he said.

In October 2001, scientists from the American society "ACT" reported that they tried to clone a human embryo and received a six-cell embryo - a stage that is not advanced enough to produce stem cells. Last month, the Scottish scientist who cloned Dolly, Prof. Ian Wilmot, announced that he had submitted a request to the British authorities to carry out a type of human embryo cloning.

Many doctors and scientists claim that cloning embryos will make it possible to investigate basic questions in biology; To better understand the causes of diseases and develop new medical treatments for a wide variety of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and Parkinson's. However, conservatives and Orthodox-Christian clergymen in the USA claim that the cloned fetus has the moral status of a person and therefore should not be experimented on.

In addition, some people in the social sciences and the humanities and radical feminists claim that embryo cloning will require a large number of eggs - something that will turn the egg into a commodity and harm the woman. According to them, since embryonic stem cells can reproduce almost without limit, it is possible to be satisfied with the dozens of lines of embryonic stem cells that already exist. They also claim that there are avenues of stem cell research that have not yet been exhausted and do not involve ethical problems.

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