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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 08:14 GMT 09:14 UK
Why do we need a stem cell bank?
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

Embryonic stem cells
Embryonic stem cells can be turned into any kind of cell
So, for some, it's time to unfurl the flags and wave banners at the UK's latest scientific triumph - the world's first stem cell bank - sited in the unlikely local of South Mimms.

The area is sadly best known for its motorway service station.

But it is said that the stem cell bank will give the Hertfordshire hamlet a better claim to fame - an institute that will propel the UK toward the cutting edge of this advanced new area of medical research.

Opponents, however, will argue that the new bank is more a cause for shame than celebration. They say that it is wrong to take cells from embryos when they could develop into a new life, and that science is riding roughshod over ethics.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to be turned into any cell in the human body.

Scientists hope to find ways of using them to grow tissues such as bone, muscles and cartilage to transplant into patients when body parts wear out.

But the research has been hampered by a lack of high quality stem cells. And those who do have some charge colleagues thousands of pounds to use them.

That should now change. Henceforth, all newly created stem cells will be deposited at the South Mimms bank.

The staff there will check them for safety and quality before making them available for research.

IVF treatment

The availability of so many types of stem cells to so many researchers so cheaply should dramatically accelerate the pace of research in the field.

Critics, though, argue that the potential benefits of using embryos have been overstated, and they have described the new bank as ghoulish. Why can't we just make do with the stem cell lines that already exist, they ask?

Advocates argue that in order to truly understand how basic biological processes work, they'll need to compare and contrast how different stem cell lines function.

And to understand different diseases, they'll need to create lines from human embryos that suffer from a genetic disorder.

Couples planning to have children who know they have a genetic disorder running in their family often opt for IVF treatment and select healthy embryos for implantation.

The embryos with the disorder are discarded. Now, they'll serve a useful function.

These disease-specific stem cell lines will also be invaluable in testing out new therapies. Because they are derived from human cells with human diseases, they are likely to be more effective than some forms of animal testing.

And if countries do accept the need for research involving human stem cells, a central bank with material available to all researchers is more efficient.

It will ultimately reduce duplication of effort and so the number of actual embryos used for research will be fewer.

Pro-life and religious groups will ultimately feel that the bank signals the start of a commodification of human life and that the special status granted to human embryonic material - the requirement that it should be used only for research that would lead to the creation of life - has now changed.

Whatever the benefits, there's no getting away from the fact that human embryonic material has become a research tool for the pharmaceutical industry - that the moral status of the embryo has been lowered for the sake of medical advance, profits, and extending the lives of an increasingly elderly rich western population.


SEE ALSO:
UK human embryonic stem cell first
13 Aug 03  |  Science/Nature
UK opens pioneer stem cell bank
19 May 04  |  Health
Q&A: UK stem cell first
13 Aug 03  |  Science/Nature


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