The Catholic University of Rome is establishing a new research facility on 1 January, in order to find alternatives to human embryos in medical research. Scientists will be setting up a 'placenta bank' that will provide a more ethically acceptable source of stem cells. These are the 'master' cells that develop into the various cell types that make up the body. Currently researchers believe work with stem cells could lead to treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and insulin-dependent diabetes. However, such studies raise great ethical problems when stem cells are collected from human embryos. Researchers at the Catholic University of Rome hope they will be able to regenerate human organs and tissue without the use of embryos. They hope that stem cells taken from adults, or a baby's umbilical cord, will provide the same results as those taken from embryos. Cardinal Thomas Winning, leader of Scotland's Roman Catholics and chairman of the bio-ethics committee of the Bishops' Conferences of the UK and Ireland, welcomed the announcement of the new university facility. A strong critic of proposed changes to the 1990 Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act which would allow the use of embryos up to 14 days old in limited cloning experiments, Cardinal Winning has written to all MPs asking them to consider whether cloning could be right when it involved the use of embryos. On Monday, Cardinal Winning said: "In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that there is an ethical alternative to cloning using embryos. "This involves the harvesting of cells either from an adult or from a new-born baby's umbilical cord. "Such cells can then be 'trained' to grow in the same way as embryo-clone cells and may offer the same hope of treatment without any of the ethical problems associated with cloning." Dr Donald Bruce, of the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology Project, said he welcomed research into alternatives to using embryos. "I'm very sympathetic to what the Catholic Church is trying to do. But I am anxious no one makes exaggerated claims. "At this stage the best science suggests the alternatives may not be feasible." Dr Bruce said he would "reluctantly" support the approval of limited embryo research. "The route to getting stem cells by other means, without embryos, may mean doing some limited research on embryos."
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