Research unbound

January 10, 2007

Stem cells continue to enhance their reputation as the all-purpose fix-it kit of medical care.

Stem cells from leg bone blood can become knee cartilage, demonstrating the regional flexibility of adult cells. Stem cells from embryos barely past the fertilization stage can develop into virtually any form of bone or tissue. And, according to research reported this week, stem cells from the amniotic fluid surrounding a developing fetus may be almost as versatile.

This latest news holds the promise that infants will one day be born with their own biological repair kits: genetically matched cells that can replace damaged or diseased tissue without the aid of a donor.

But the prospect of huge medical advancement through easily obtainable stem cells from amniotic fluid should not be allowed to divert the Democratic-led Congress from its promise to remove President Bush's restrictions on federal research into the even greater potential of embryonic stem cells.

If anything, the latest news underscores the importance of continuing research on all fronts.

President Bush and a minority in Congress object to embryonic stem cell research because it requires the destruction of an embryo - though the measure that Mr. Bush vetoed last year and that the House is scheduled to reconsider tomorrow would allow only the use of discards from the in vitro fertilization process that would otherwise be destroyed.

Try as they might, though, these opponents can't hold back the tide of medical science, which is continuing at a furious pace in private institutions and in laboratories overseas. Nor has this minority offered any sort of broad ethical framework that might be applied to all the dark corners into which scientists are inclined to peek.

All Mr. Bush achieved through his 2001 restrictions on embryonic stem cell research was to shut off the principal source of funds that could ensure that U.S. scientists and institutions are in the forefront of such research, and to potentially delay its promise of treating chronic, incurable diseases that affect one in three Americans.

At the urging of its new leaders, the House will likely quickly agree to remove Mr. Bush's restrictions - as a bipartisan majority of Congress did last year. But action in the Senate is always less predictable, and, if given the chance, the president is expected to again veto the measure.

During the debate, opponents will doubtless argue that the legislation is unnecessary because of research progress on other fronts. That shortsighted view should not be allowed to prevail. Imagine the miracle cures that might be missed if American scientists aren't allowed to look for them.

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