Stem Cell Research Tops Science List: Advances in Genomics also Cited in Journal’s Top 10

(December 16 -- AP) - Research that may lead to building new body parts from embryonic stem cells has been named the “Breakthrough of the Year” by editors of the Journal Science.

Learning how to cause stem cells to grow into selected types ofcells, tissues and organs raises hopes of dazzling medical applications, the editors say in a report appearing in the journal on Friday.

But the embryonic stem cell research also created a troubling ethical debate that was heard throughout the year in the White House, in Congress and in laboratories coast to coast.

Embryonic stem cells are the ancestral cells that give rise to all of the tissues and organs in the body. Researchers believe that such cells, taken from human embryos or fetuses, could be directed to grow replacements for ailing hearts, livers or other organs.

Use of embryonic stem cells has been denounced by some members of Congress and by antiabortion groups.

President Clinton asked a commission to evaluate the ethics of using stem cells in federally funded research. The report supported the research.

National Institutes of Health director Dr. Harold Varmus also supported stem cell research and proposed guidelines that would permit government funding, but only if the embryonic stem cells used were developed with use of private money. The work would be monitored by a special oversight commission.

Researchers have also found that some stem cells taken from adult tissue could be converted into other types of cells brain cells becoming blood cells, or bone marrow becoming liver.

Science editor Floyd E. Bloom said in an editorial about stem cells: Although much remains to be done to convert todays results into tomorrows treatments and tools, the likelihood of success seems high.

Runner-up for breakthrough of the year were the huge advances in genomics, the science of deciphering the basic genetic pattern of life. The complete gene sequence for three microbes was completed in 1999, and a third of the base pairs in human DNA, along with one complete chromosome, number 22. A rough draft of the entire human genome is expected by March.

The other research advances selected and listed by Science in no particular order:

  • Cooling fermions, one of the two basic particles of matter, to near absolute zero to create a state of matter in which atoms act like waves instead of individual particles.
  • Resolving the structure of the ribosome, a sort of protein-making factory inside a cell.
  • Finding more planets beyond the solar system. Astronomers now have evidence of about 30 planets orbiting distant suns and have captured what may be a view of one planet orbiting across the face of a star.
  • Researchers have found new molecules in the brain that play a role in creating memories and learning.
  • Astronomers found new evidence that the universe is flat. This supports the Big Bang theory by establishing a precise balance between matter and energy.
  • Researchers developed photonic crystals, components that manipulate light waves just as semiconductors manipulate electrical current. Photonic crystals could lead to new types of computers and communication circuits.
  • Cell fossils were discovered that push the known existence of complex life back to 2.7 billion years, a billion years earlier than previously known.
  • Gamma ray bursts, cosmic eruptions that put out more energy in seconds than the sun does in 10 billion years, were linked to the birth of black holes. This provides one answer to a mystery that has persisted for 30 years.

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