- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

The National Institutes of Health yesterday released the long-awaited guidelines scientists must follow in pursuing highly controversial experiments on stem cells obtained from human embryos.

The new rules now free scientists to obtain federal funding for lines of research that many of the nation's top scientists say will revolutionize medicine.

They predict the stem-cell experiments will lead to cures for such brutal and intractable ailments as Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, severe burns, spinal cord injuries and more.

Applauding the release of the guidelines at an impromptu news conference, President Clinton remarked that stem-cell research offers "potentially staggering benefits." He added that the guidelines are not being "put out without rigorous scientific research."

In fact, federal officials have reviewed some 50,000 comments since the guidelines were first proposed in December. The criticisms and suggestions came from scientists, religious groups, patient-advocacy organizations and private citizens. Consequently, the draft proposals were amended, although they weren't changed substantially.

The new rules deal with "human pluripotent stem cells" the special, microscopic cells harvested from embryos or fetal tissue that have the ability to divide indefinitely. Such cells possess the power to develop into the specialized cells that actually form muscle, nerves, blood, and eventually almost all human body parts.

Scientists believe they eventually will be able to implant into the human brain for instance stem cells coaxed to develop into brain cells. There the implanted cells would function in place of the damaged cells causing a patient's illness.

Congressional restrictions bar funding for the research that derives stem cells from human embryos. But it does not prohibit funding for experiments that utilize the pluripotent stem cells themselves. As NIH documents explain, "Such cells are not embryos."

However, the restrictions against federal funding of embryo research mainly affect academics. The ban doesn't apply to private laboratories, and many of them conduct embryonic stem-cell research freely with minimal federal oversight.

Thus, under the new guidelines, federally funded research may be conducted only on cells obtained from the donated or purchased embryos produced in private laboratories especially fertility clinics. Typically, the clinics produce an oversupply of embryos for in vitro fertilization. Technicians freeze and store extras in case they may be needed, and eventually destroy those not used.

The new guidelines prohibit inducements for saving the doomed embryos for research, set out requirements for informed consent and demand that research proposals be reviewed and approved by an Institutional Review Board.

In general, the rules attempt to see that federally funded stem-cell research is conducted ethically, legally and respectfully. But those who believe life begins at conception say the NIH guidelines do just the opposite. They are enraged.

They proclaim that the microscopic cell clusters are human beings, and, as Judie Brown, president of the American Life League puts it, "These guidelines sanction murder."

That's a position many if not most scientists consider extreme. And such groups as the American Society for Cell Biology and patient-advocacy groups like the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International enthusiastically approved the guidelines.

Still, some 60 members of Congress opposed the rules when they were first proposed. And Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican, yesterday declared, "This decision is a sad day for America, as the sanctity of life has yet again been denigrated by the Clinton-Gore administration."

Many religious groups share that view, as do persons who simply fear scientists are going too far in tinkering with the basics of life. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, vowed: "There will be a legal challenge."

Responding to the criticisms, biochemist John Morrow of Texas Tech University's Health Sciences Center said: "These guidelines are about the best and most reasonable compromise possible. Those who say a little stem cell in a petri dish is the same as a 6-year-old girl in kindergarten must know in their hearts that's not true. But they probably see these guidelines as arguing against the right-to-life position, and for them, no compromise is acceptable."

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