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Scientists sideline Bush opposition to stem cell research

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Harvard scientists have said they will bypass President Bush's moratorium on state funding of embryonic stem cell research by using privately sourced cash.

It's thought it will be the first non-commercial enterprise to work on human embryos in the US. An executive order from Bush in 2001 banned the use of public money for research on human embryonic stem cells other than just 22 old lines which have since been branded useless because of contamination.

Teams at Harvard will use millions of dollars of private donations from foundations, hospitals, institutions and individuals to fund academic projects to make new lines. Harvard Provost Steven E Hyman said: "Creating disease and patient specific stem cell lines is essential if we are to fulfill the promise of stem cell research."

Two groups will work on creating new human stem cell lines derived from surplus IVF embryos. They will work towards using the cells to treat diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and blood disorders.

Embryonic stem cells are the "master" cells that divide and specialise into every type in the adult body. Scientists have shown in animals they have enormous potential for repairing damaged and diseased tissues.

The plan is to use the cloning technology behind the creation of Dolly the sheep, somatic nuclear transfer, to create cells that are tailored to specific diseases, and even individual patients. DNA from patients will be transferred into a fertilised egg, which is then allowed to divide to grow stem cells which can then be transferred back into the patient. Because they are bespoke to the patient's genetics, cells should repair damage better.

The disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk falsely claimed to have achieved somatic nuclear transfer in human embryos. The Harvard scientists could now be the first to the milestone.

Making his executive order in 2001, Bush made his opposition to the techniques clear. He said: "Researchers are telling us the next step could be to clone human beings to create individual designer stem cells, essentially to grow another you."

Responding to the firestorm still surrounding the field in America, one of the lead researchers on the new project, Douglas A Melton, said: "The reality of the suffering of those individuals far outweighs the potential of [embryos] that would never be implanted and allowed to come to term even if we did not do this research"

Ethics review boards considered the research proposals for "more than two years". Harvard President Lawrence H Summers said: "While we understand and respect the sincerely held beliefs of those who oppose this research, we are equally sincere in our belief that the life-and-death medical needs of countless suffering children and adults justifies moving forward with this research."

A bipartisan congressional delegation to the UK expressed similar views last week and said the US was falling behind in the field. The Senate is due to vote on a bill, already passed by the House of Representatives, which could override Bush's decision against funding research. ®

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