US government to fund human stem cell research

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 02 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:527
  1. Scott Gottlieb
  1. New York

    The federal government of the United States announced last week that for the first time it will fund medical research using human embryo cells, touching off a bitter debate between antiabortion groups and patients who could one day benefit from the research.

    The hope is that stem cells, obtained from either donated embryos or, under certain circumstances, aborted pregnancies, will be able to change into a wide variety of more specific cells that can repair diseased tissues and allow them to function normally. Some medical researchers say that the use of these primitive cells could herald a new generation of treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes to Parkinson's disease.

    President Clinton has endorsed the new guidelines as having “potentially staggering benefits.” Antiabortion campaigners, however, say that it will be necessary to destroy human embryos to obtain the stem cells, a process they condemn as immoral and illegal.

    The new policy was put in place despite a 1996 federal law—championed by abortion opponents in Congress, the National Right to Life Committee, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops—that prohibits public funding of research in which human embryos are destroyed or discarded. Opponents said that the guidelines were a transparent and politically motivated strategy to get around the law. But many prominent American scientists publicly defended the new guidelines.

    “We're well aware … this involves the destruction of an embryo,” said Dr Lana Skirboll, director of the office of science policy at the National Institutes of Health, the US agency that drafted the new guidelines. “The important issue is that we set forth conditions under which we will allow investigators to use stem cells that were derived from embryos only under certain conditions.”

    According to the new guidelines, funds from the National Institutes of Health may be used for research on stem cells only if they were derived from embryos left over from infertility treatments. Such tissue is almost always marked for destruction anyway, say the National Institutes of Health.

    In addition, researchers must specify to the tissue donor whether information that could reveal his or her identity will be retained. It may be necessary to track down a donor if it is determined that he or she has an infectious disease. For their part, donors are not allowed to say where they want their embryonic tissue to go, or to whom. Under existing US rules, embryos cannot be sold, but they can be donated for research.

    Many doctors believe that advances in research are likely to raise new challenges to the rules and to other current restrictions on embryo research.

    The National Institutes of Health said, for example, that it would fund only work that uses embryos created but not used by couples during the course of infertility treatments. Eventually, scientists will want to work with embryos they create in their own laboratories using genetic material from their patients, something still barred by the new guidelines. The stem cells from such embryos could be transplanted back into a patient's body with a lowered risk of rejection.

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