A breakthrough in stem cell studies

Among the reasons to get excited about locating stem cell research in The City was the impetus it would give to researchers, both public and private, in advancing medical science. When California voters approved Proposition 71, which authorized a state-supported research institute, perhaps they knew — to give them appropriate credit — that the research energy they were unleashing would overcome nettlesome ethical issues.

You know the issues. Foremost is the concern, springing from common religious traditions, and voiced most prominently by President Bush, that live embryos would be killed in order to “harvest” the cells needed for laboratory research. Progressive elements accused the president of harboring dark, unenlightened impulses, as if he were poised to send latter-day Galileos to the dungeon.

The president’s position, not without backing from some of our most distinguished ethicists, actually deserved respect. Generations of Americans who grew up learning to fear the dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell should have registered some misgivings about using embryonic life in such a clinical fashion.

Medical experimentation, productive or not, then a toss into some bin marked “bio-waste?” You do not want to make such a practice an indispensable characteristic of a living civilization.

Still, there was always reason to believe that humane science could find a path out of the ethical dilemma. This week’s news from Alameda suggests exactly that.

A biotech company called Advanced Cell Technology Inc. announced it had found a way to isolate and preserve a single cell without having to destroy the embryo from which it was taken. Though some opponents of stem cell research said the breakthrough doesn’t allay their moral concerns, it clearly — if the company’s press release is to be believed — goes far to resolve the matter.

The White House itself said as much, when the fanfared results reached its doorstep. Last month the president vetoed a bill to direct federal tax dollars to stem cell research. On Wednesday the administration greeted the news with a comment that the Alameda laboratory had taken a step in the right direction.

Indeed it is. Owing to litigation and other hurdles, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has not sped funding to Advanced Cell Technology Inc. But the company gravitated here from Massachusetts precisely because of that prospect. That alone provided incentive to perform this kind of research.

The debate hasn’t ended as a result of the Alameda breakthrough. Nor should it. The stem cell lobby hasn’t considered to our satisfaction the promise of adult stemcells.

But we are much reassured by more evidence that science can respond to ethical questions if given the proper motivation and guidance. We’re glad it’s happening here.

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