EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS: Private Research Surges Ahead
While privately funded researchers forge ahead with embryonic stem cell research, publicly funded research hangs in the balance as federal guidelines "languish unfinished, the victim of political wrangling over abortion," the Washington Post reports. Scientists discovered 18 months ago that stem cells appeared to "have remarkable regenerative powers useful against a host of conditions, including Parkinson's, diabetes and, perhaps, even cancer," but a five-year congressional ban on using federal funds for human embryo research has prevented not only publicly financed researchers but also "ethics overseers" from entering the field. Those ethicists and others maintain that the public would benefit if the Clinton administration would finalize rules regarding how embryonic cells should be obtained and used in federally funded research. Without the "gold standard" of federal guidelines, some are worried that "parents may not be told that their embryos are being used in research; scientists may start creating human embryos from scratch just to destroy them for their stem cells; and someone may even try to use versatile cells to clone human adults." Last year, NIH promised to come up with ethics guidelines on what it would fund. But 15 months later, those guidelines are not in place. In early December, NIH did present draft guidelines, which would limit scientists to using only leftover frozen embryos created for fertility treatments that would have been destroyed anyway and that have been freely donated. The NIH plan would allow federally funded researchers to perform experiments on stem cells obtained from destroying human embryos, but would not allow the researchers to destroy the embryos themselves. As a mountain of public comment on those guidelines still must be sorted through, NIH officials likely will not deliver a final version to HHS until at least June. Some insiders have even said that HHS "may not release the rules until after the federal appropriations process this fall, or even after the presidential election since many in Congress ... are strongly opposed to any kind of human embryo research."
While NIH continues to evaluate public comment, some members of Congress are "gearing up for a fight." Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a bill in January that would legalize recommendations by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which determined last year that "federally funded scientists seeking stem cells should be allowed to destroy embryos if the [women] consent." During an April 26 hearing on Specter's proposal, paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve and others "will sing the praises of stem cell research." At the same time, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ariz.) and others have argued that the government should stay out of embryo research and have threatened that they "can pull together enough votes to kill even NIH's more modest draft guidelines." Administration officials said they doubt that could happen, but "they are not anxious for a congressional battle over embryos on the eve of a presidential election" (Weiss, Washington Post, 4/19).