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by Siv Palm

In March, California scientists were able to specifically alter the gene of the HIV receptor CCR5 in living cells. This means that they can find new therapeutic approaches in treatment of AIDS. In April, scientists from Washington announced they had been able to regrow damaged brain cells in Alzheimer’s patients—finally offering a ray of hope to patients suffering from the disease, and their families and caretakers.

In Norway, in March, researchers proved it possible to produce nerve cells, on a large scale, from the bone marrow of adults. It was already known this was possible with cells from human embryos, but so far scientists hadn’t been able to accomplish this with cells from adults. The breakthrough came when scientists took stem cells and attached these to the bone marrow of chicken embryos. There the cells grew until harvest time, when they were tested and found fully functional as human nerve cells. This will make further research easier, and make irrelevant some of the moral issues people have had regarding the use of human embryos for this purpose. (Of course, it still does not resolve the problem of all those unwanted embryos which are not and can never become human beings: see pages 14 and 15, this issue.)

The recent discovery that fat cells contain a cosiderable number of stem cells, perhaps even more than bone marrow, was also exciting. To harvest cells from bone marrow is excruciatingly painful and is viewed, by many, as risky. This has made a lot of people reluctant to donate cells from their bone marrow. Another source, with fewer complications, is therefore welcome.

Unfortunately for those whose life can depend on this research, most countries have restrictions on it or do not allow it at all. In March the United Nations actually passed a resolution strongly urging that all member nations ban the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research. Great Britain was among the few to vote against the resolution, as the British delegation felt it would seriously harm science’s chance to find therapeutic cures for diseases.

The UN vote was a step back, but things are also moving forward. Research on embryonic stem cells is legal in four countries; Sweden, England, Belgium, and Spain.

In the United States, the ban against federal funds being used for stem cell research was lifted by the Clinton Administration, in 1993. The present Bush Administration became, during Bush’s first term, the first U.S. Administration ever to finance even limited stem cell research. And in the November election, California voters of California approved proposition 71, the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, a $3 billion bond measure to fund stem cell research. The passage of Prop. 71 is expected to make California the global leader in pioneering stem cell research.
Through stem cell research, new theraputic approaches in the treatment of AIDS and neural damage may be available. Web photo


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