National Academies Panel Releases Voluntary Ethical Guidelines on Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research
As expected, a 10-member panel convened by the National Academies on Tuesday released a report outlining proposed ethical guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research, including the recommendation that all institutions engaged in such research establish oversight committees, USA Today reports (Vergano/Weise, USA Today, 4/27).
The 131-page report contains more than 50 specific recommendations for institutions conducting the research. The report's primary recommendation is that all institutions studying embryonic stem cells establish oversight committees that include experts on the scientific, legal and ethical issues of the research, as well as members of the public (California Healthline, 4/26).
The panel also recommended that a national oversight system -- overseen by a national panel -- be put in place to reevaluate guidelines as research progresses, similar to NIH oversight panels for similar types of research, such as genetic engineering (USA Today, 4/27). The panel -- which was a joint project between the academies' National Research Council and Institute of Medicine -- said the guidelines are "intended to enhance the integrity of privately funded human embryonic stem cell research by encouraging responsible practices," according to a National Academies release (National Academies release, 4/26).
The panel also recommended banning the growth of human embryos for longer than 14 days to create embryonic stem cells (USA Today, 4/27). In addition, the guidelines say women should never be paid to donate eggs for embryonic stem cell research, and consent forms must tell donors that embryos will be destroyed and that stem cell lines could be kept for years. The report also said donors must be informed that they will not benefit from "commercial use" of their embryos, and their identities must be kept secret, according to the Baltimore Sun (Bell, Baltimore Sun, 4/27).
Researchers also should not place any pressure on clinics to create more embryos than are needed for fertility treatments, according to the guidelines, the Christian Science Monitor reports (Lamb, Christian Science Monitor, 4/27). The guidelines also advise against injecting human stem cells into the embryos of other primates and recommend that all institutions involved in research in which human and animal cells are combined review such experiments. The academies also reiterated its opposition to human reproductive cloning (California Healthline, 4/26).
National Academies President Bruce Alberts said he hopes the guidelines will become the standard that universities, research institutes, privately funded scientists and state governments pursuing embryonic stem cell research follow, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 4/27).
"It relieves a lot of pressure on the scientist in the absence of any advice or policy," Dr. Ali Brivanlou, a researcher at Rockefeller University, said (Wade, New York Times, 4/27).
Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said the guidelines "should satisfy the public that this research is being done for the best interests of tens of millions of patients," adding, "It's not something that's being done ad hoc by rogue scientists" (Kaplan/Garvey, Los Angeles Times, 4/27).
The guidelines are unlikely to "calm the storm" of the national debate over ethical and moral questions about the research, USA Today reports (USA Today, 4/27). Opponents of the research say it is immoral because it destroys human embryos, while supporters say the research could help fund cures for degenerative diseases. Legislation (HR 810, S 471) is currently before Congress that would ease federal funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research.
President Bush's embryonic stem cell policy -- which he announced on Aug. 9, 2001 -- limits federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines created on or before that date. Critics of Bush's policy have said that the embryonic stem cell lines available for federally funded research are not biologically diverse, are contaminated with nonhuman material and are useless for research (California Healthline, 4/26).
"These so-called 'guidelines' for destructive human embryonic stem cell research try to put a good face on an unethical line of research," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said (Washington Post, 4/27). However, Reps. Michael Castle (R-Del.) and Diana Degette (D-Colo.), who are sponsoring the legislation, said in a joint statement that the current system "lacks the comprehensive ethical guidelines and controls that are needed" (CQ HealthBeat, 4/26).
NPR's "All Things Considered" on Tuesday reported on the panel's guidelines. The segment includes comments from Fred Gage, professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies' Laboratory of Genetics; IOM President Harvey Fineberg, who presented the guidelines; Richard Hynes, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who helped lead the panel; and Leonard Zon, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (Hamilton, "All Things Considered," NPR, 4/26). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.