Stem Cell Research Tops Science for 1999
Paul Recer,
AP Science Writer

2:01 PM EST; December 16, 1999; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- In a rapid surge of discovery, researchers in 1999 began learning how to direct the transformation of stem cells into new body parts, a finding that may dramatically change medicine and extend life. The editors of Science have selected the new stem-cell research as the "Breakthrough of the Year" for 1999. A report appearing Friday in the journal said the new technology "raises hopes of dazzling medical applications."

But the 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 anti-abortion groups.

President Clinton asked a Commission to evaluate the ethics of using stem cells in Federally-funded research. Their report strongly supported stem-cell research. NIH 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 by private funds. The work was to 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 today's results into tomorrow's 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 one-third of the base pairs in human DNA, along with one complete chromosome, Chromosome 22. A rough draft of the entire human genome is expected by March 2000.

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

For the "Blunder of the Year," Science selected NASA's failed Mars Climate Orbiter. The $87 million Mars probe was lost when NASA engineers used "pound-seconds," an English system measure, instead of "Newton-Seconds," a Metric measure, to guide the craft's rocket firings.

For "Breakdown of the Year," Science selected the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to drop evolution from statewide science teaching standards. The decision is considered a triumph for creationists who believe, along with 35 percent of all American adults, that the Biblical account of creation is literally true!