Expand NU’s stem cell effort

Northwestern’s stem-cell research program, led by John A. Kessler at the Feinberg School of Medicine, is one of the top such university programs in the world. The program’s latest recognition came in the form of a $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and a designation for the university as a center for excellence in the field.

That money is going toward embryonic stem-cell research, which involves extracting stem cells from embryos, and manipulating the cells to grow into various tissues. This process, which destroys the embryo, promises major advances in regenerative medicine.

The university’s current embryonic stem-cell program is a boon to the school, both for the medical possibilities it explores and the scientific renown it garners. The program should be expanded and built upon, with more funds to continue embryonic stem-cell research and to explore stem-cell extraction from sources other than embryos.

In August, for example, Harvard scientists announced the success they had with fusing adult skin cells with embryonic stem cells, which could avoid the future destruction of human embryos. Studies have also shown that tissue cells extracted from adult bone marrow show serious potential.

Other possibilities that should be explored involve the extraction of stem-cells from cell masses that have been altered to eliminate the potential to develop into fetuses.

Exploring alternatives to embryonic extraction would keep our stem-cell program on the cutting edge of regenerative medicine and have the added bonus of avoiding ethical controversy over embryo destruction.

The university shouldn’t wait for federal grants to make this happen. For one thing, federal grants for stem-cell research restrict the use of those funds to certain lines of embryos. Non-government funds, on the other hand, have no such restrictions.

Northwestern’s stem-cell program, even at this early stage, has earned the right to substantial university money. The university should also actively encourage private donors to contribute to this immensely promising program.