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Stem cells/The U stands up for science

February 11, 2004
Star Tribune

The University of Minnesota has always stood at the edge of a Brave New World, which is just where it should stand. Long a haven for visionaries and researchers, it can claim credit for advancing humankind's lot in virtually every sphere -- from literature to limnology. Reaching for the next breakthrough often means taking a dare -- and sometimes means flouting conventional thinking. Thus the school deserves praise for taking a leap some onlookers will lament. Its decision to launch stem-cell research using human embryos is precisely the sort of bold move that could spur a great discovery.

And what are universities for if not discovery? In many a classroom and research lab at Minnesota's largest campus, scholars seek answers to some of life's trickiest riddles. For instance, the school has long been a leader in stem-cell research -- the study of undifferentiated cell clusters that have the ability to grow into any cell type and thus, almost assuredly, to act as healing agents. Preliminary study suggests stem-cell transplants could very well cure sickle-cell anemia, and might also restore the health of people with diseases as diverse as diabetes, pneumonia and multiple sclerosis.

It's immensely important work -- the sort a major research institution like Minnesota cannot afford to forgo. But there's a problem with stem-cell research, and it's made life most difficult for the field's explorers: Stem cells are derived from days-old human embryos, after which they're allowed to propagate into "lines" for scientific study. Under federal law, however, scientists can only conduct federally funded stem-cell research on the few stem-cell lines already in existence. The creation of new stem-cell lines from new living embryos -- a move considered necessary to assure the necessary supply and diversity of such cells -- is forbidden in any federally funded lab.

It's a foolish rule, written to pander to the staunchest of abortion foes. Such critics consider any scientific use of a donated living embryo (one left over after an in-vitro fertilization attempt, for instance) an unethical form of experimentation. Precisely why they think this way is hard to discern -- an "extra" embryo not briefly used for science is wasted entirely: It ends up washing down a drain.

But the University of Minnesota is used to accommodating government overseers, and hence has worked out a way around the federal limitations. It is doing so by shunning federal funds altogether, working with embryos and the stem cells they produce in special labs funded exclusively by nonprofits and biotech firms. Making their own diverse supply of stem cells will enable university scientists to pursue the many kinds of research they consider most promising.

This is a smart and courageous move, which confirms the University of Minnesota's dedication to pursuing unanswered questions even in the face of obstacles. The shame, of course, is that such fundamental research -- so crucial, so likely to lead to healing illness and saving lives -- must contend with any obstacles at all. In a better world, university scientists would find their work underwritten, not hindered, by the federal government. May that braver world someday come to life.

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