STEM CELL RESEARCH: NIH to Propose New Research Rules
The National Institutes of Health and the Clinton Administration are expected to release today new rules for stem cell research that will permit the agency to fund "controversial but promising" research with human embryos. The move will likely spawn protests and lawsuits from abortion-rights opponents and their congressional allies, the Los Angeles Times reports. Stem cell research is considered by many researchers as a potential source of treatment for spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders (Zitner, 8/23). The new guidelines would stipulate that federal research be conducted only on the cells obtained from frozen embryos created in surplus during fertility treatments and intended for disposal, and that federal money not be used for the destruction of embryos to retrieve the cells; this element of the research would have to be financed by private funds. However, once obtained, these cells could be passed to federally supported scientists, "creating a separation of responsibility for the embryo's destruction that opponents have criticized as morally meaningless." The rules would also forbid researchers from pressuring or coercing fertility patients to donate their embryos and deny patients the right to specify the recipients of their embryos' stem cells. Similar to last year's draft rules, the final version includes stronger language to ensure that donors fully understand that their embryos "will not survive the procedure," and that cells may be made into tissue that could ultimately be transplanted into other patients.
Patient advocacy groups have lauded the rules and the potential progress of stem cell research and disease treatments. Daniel Perry, chair of the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research, explained, "It would be very tough for the public to take argument with this rule-making process, which has reached out to ethicists, religious leaders, scientists, patient groups, physicians and others in a very sincere attempt to provide a mechanism to exploit what may be the biggest breakthrough in medicine in the past 10 years" (Weiss, Washington Post, 8/23). Some members of Congress argued against the rules, however, including Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) who criticized the NIH's "determination to push through guidelines which are directly against the law and deeply questioned by many" (Adams, Wall Street Journal, 8/23). Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), who has co-sponsored an amendment to the NIH appropriations bill that would preclude federal funding for any research that destroys embryos, said, "I don't think that they by law should be allowed to do this. We're talking about dismembering a living being, according to our interpretation." The NIH reportedly plans to appoint an advisory committee of scientists and ethicists to review all embryo cell grant applications, with the first awards possibly to be announced late next year, assuming no interference from Congress or the next president (Washington Post, 8/23).