Guidelines ease limits on stem cells

New stem cell research guidelines released Friday by the National Institutes of Health would ease restrictions on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research, allowing for cells culled from fertility clinic embryos that otherwise would be discarded.

The draft guidelines do not allow for the use of stem cells derived from embryos created just for science - and perhaps even those created using cloning techniques - that could make them genetically customized for a specific patient.

The announcement comes more than a month after President Obama signed an order to roll back George W. Bush-era restrictions on taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research. The executive order directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to issue new stem cell guidelines within 120 days.

“We believe strongly that the draft guidelines would set forth a range of opportunities that would greatly expand opportunities for human embryonic stem cell research that would be eligible for funding from NIH,” said the agency’s acting director, Raynard Kington, during a conference call with reporters. “We are grateful for the president’s executive order. We believe that it was the right decision to move in that direction.”

The new guidelines generally were applauded by medical researchers, though they were derided by some conservative groups.

“I think this is actually fine,” said Dr. Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a former NIH director during the Bill Clinton administration. “Obviously not everything is covered, but the essential things are there for making a lot more progress in stem cell research.”

Dr. Varmus added that the recommendations present a “huge improvement” over the Bush-era restrictions.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for working on a vast number of cell lines,” he said. “There may be a few that wish that these guidelines went further, but frankly this covers virtually everything that’s out there to be used.”

The National Right to Life Committee, one of the nation’s biggest pro-life groups, condemned the new set of guidelines, saying it “slides further down the slippery slope” of further exploitation of human embryos.

“Some may characterize the guidelines issued today as narrowly crafted, since NIH will not initially fund research involving human embryos who were created specifically to be used in research,” said the group’s legislative director, Douglas Johnson. “This seeming restraint is part of an incremental strategy intended to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes.”

Mr. Kington said there isn’t consensus within the scientific community at this time to significantly loosen the limits further.

He added that the NIH “considered the range of ethical issues” during the drafting process.

The guidelines, if approved, would require specific conditions to be met before fertility clinics could donate stem cells for research, including:

• All options pertaining to use of embryos no longer needed for reproductive purposes would be explained to potential donors.

• No inducements would be offered for the donation.

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