By MICHAEL WOODS
June 07, 2005
Just days before, South Korean scientists had announced a breakthrough in therapeutic cloning that allowed them to quickly produce stem cells genetically matched to people of varied ages, genders and races.
The discovery conjured images of a whole new medical industry growing up almost overnight, with doctors eventually regenerating cells or tissues to treat or cure all kinds of ailments, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases _ all without U.S. participation.
But the concern about falling behind the rest of the world may be overblown. In fact, the United States appears to be a relatively hospitable place for embryonic stem cell research, especially compared to Canada and some nations in Europe where governments not only refuse financial support for human cloning to produce stem cells, they outlaw the practice.
In Canada, scientists who violate the ban can be jailed for 10 years and fined $500,000. "You can bet that with these harsh sanctions scientists are complying," said Rosario M. Isasi, an attorney who works on medical ethics issues at the University of Montreal.
Under German law, scientists who even e-mail or telephone cloning instructions to colleagues in other countries can be thrown into jail for three years and fined more than $60,000. There are key differences among nations when it comes to regulating embryonic stem cell research, according to Robert L. Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who has written a book on genetic engineering.
The United States restricts the flow of federal money for embryonic stem cell research _ limiting support to a relative handful of stem cell lines created from embryos discarded at in vitro fertilization clinics before August 2001 _ but does not limit private, state or local government funding. California voters last year approved $3 billion for stem cell research.
The European Union has adopted a similar policy, although it does allow financing for some new embryonic stem cell lines. But national policies in Europe differ widely, and some countries have adopted sweeping regulations against both government and privately funded projects.
"In the United States, (opposition) comes mostly from the Christian right," Paarlberg said. "In Europe, opposition also comes from Socialists and Green parties on the left, and from the state bureaucracies that tend to overregulate every kind of scientific endeavor."
Stormy seas often prevail as science sets sail toward new horizons that challenge religious and moral values. Historians of medicine, however, could find few parallels to the current situation.
Yale University's Susan Lederer was able to cite one, the late 1800s, when medical science first turned to animal experimentation to understand human diseases.
"There were efforts in England, the United States and Germany to ban animal experimentation altogether on moral grounds (animal suffering) and scientific grounds (other animals are different from humans)," Lederer said. "The arguments for allowing unrestricted animal research sound strikingly similar to those for stem cell research."
Today's embryonic stem cell research sparks controversy because scientists must destroy human embryos to retrieve the cells, which are undifferentiated at such an early stage of development. The hope is that they eventually might be grown into different types of cells and used to repair various types of cell or tissue damage.
"The U. S. and the European Union are much more alike than is sometimes suggested," said Piet A. Bolhuis of the Netherlands, who advises his government on stem cell research. "Of course, one important difference is a president who makes statements about the research subject."
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