Monday, 1 January,
2001, 14:36 GMT
By Ruth Whitbread
The Roman Catholic Church is giving its support to a new research centre which could provide an alternative to the use of human embryos for medical research.
On 1 January 2001, the Sacre Cuore (Sacred Heart) University in Rome is opening a 'placenta bank', providing researchers with human cells for their work from what the Church considers an ethical source.
Scientists agree that 'stem' cells - the parent cells of all tissues in the body - have enormous medical potential. In theory they could be used to grow tissues and organs to replace damaged parts of the body.
This could lead to new treatments for diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Multiple Sclerosis.
The best-known source of stem cells is from human embryos.
But the Vatican opposes the research, saying that experimenting using fertilised human eggs is immoral and could lead to the cloning of human beings.
A compromise may be possible through the collection and storage of placentas and umbilical cords, which also contain stem cells.
The new 'placenta bank' in Rome has been welcomed by people like Dr Michael Jarmulowicz of Britain's Catholic Doctors Guild.
"What they hope to do is bank it, freeze it, and then use it for research," he says.
"The experiments on the embryonic stem cells are identical (to) ones that can be done on later stem cells," he adds.
There is no clear evidence yet that stem cells from placentas and umbilical cords will be as effective as cells from human embryos.
Some scientists believe their uses may be limited to treating diseases of the blood.
But the new centre
at least allows this kind of research to proceed within the ethical limits
of the Catholic Church.