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Progress on stem cells New discovery offers some hope of reconciling moral, health issues

A promising new means of making therapeutic stem cells, one that doesn't involve the controversial acts of cloning and embryo destruction, owes less to the complications of politics than to the dreamed-for simplicity of good science.

But don't use Occam's razor to scrape the bumper stickers off your car just yet, no matter what side of the controversy you are on.

The good news is that two groups of scientists have found a means of turning normal human skin cells into the medicinal gold mine of stem cells, and they did so apparently following the 14th century philosopher William of Occam's rule of the simplest path being the best.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the new method will finally prove to be as effective as the more elaborate embryo manipulation method that has been getting all the attention, not all of it positive.

The two groups that have the most reason to hope that the new method will indeed supplant the old are those who have been on opposite sides of the political fence over the matter. Those hoping that the new, simple method of stem cell generation really works as well or better than the embryonic method are those who have, or have loved ones with, medical conditions that potentially could be treated with yet-undiscovered stem cell therapies, as well as those whoargue that the destruction of those embryos was the unacceptable destruction of a human life.

Those who are sick may rid themselves of disease. Those who seek power may rid themselves of a wedge issue that can draw intense conservative support for candidates in Republican primaries, but backfire on those candidates among the more moderate electorate.

Last year, a Japanese team led by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University figured out how to make stem cells from the skin cells of mice, creating cells that become susceptible to the same suggestions that they could replace heart, lung, nervous or other tissue that is diseased or deteriorating.

Now Yamanaka's group, as well as a team led by stem cell pioneer James Thomoson of Wisconsin, have managed to do the same thing with human skin cells. That's extremely rapid progress for such a complicated project, progress that may well stall or prove limited in its impact.

What we don't yet know is whether the scientists have, by removing the touchy questions of cloning and embryos from the equation, wrestled this matter back into their realm, away from the politicians, the pundits and the push polls.

If they have, wonderful. If they haven't, then stem cell research will remain a difficult question that politicians shouldn't be allowed to duck.

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