NIH Proposes Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Guidelines

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - The debate on stem cell research moves into high gear, now that the National Institutes of Health has published guidelines on how it plans to conduct research on those stem cells - the "master" cells that give rise to other human cells, tissues, and organs.

The debate involves those who talk about "harvesting" stem cells from embryonic tissue and those who talk about killing unborn babies to get ahold of the stem cells that only the earliest forms of life can provide.

The argument became more heated Wednesday, when the National Institutes of Health published draft guidelines for stem cell research in the Federal Register, opening up a sixty-day public comment period.

Specifically, the NIH wants to use federal funds - taxpayer dollars - for research that might someday lead to new treatments and cures for all kinds of diseases - Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, and cancer among them. Scientists hope to use embryonic stem cells to grow replacement tissue for damaged human hearts, brain disorders, spinal injuries.

The NIH says its guidelines would "help ensure that NIH-funded research in this area is conducted in an ethical and legal manner." The guidelines forbid human cloning or mixing stem cells with animal or human embryos - "Frankenstein" experiments, in other words.

However, the guidelines would allow federal funding for research that includes extracting stem cells from human fetal tissue (leading to the death of the embryo), as well as research projects involving such cells.

A group called the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research says stem cell research hold "tremendous promise for alleviating and even curing catastrophic illness." It estimates that as many as 100 million people nationwide could benefit from such research.

But pro-life groups are equally passionate in their objections to embryonic stem-cell research - note the word "embryonic." The National Right to Life Committee Wednesday made it clear that it does not oppose stem cell research in all cases: "We strongly encourage federal funding of research on stem cells obtained in ways that do not kill living members of the human family," said NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson.

In fact, pro-life groups support stem cell research, when the cells are taken from umbilical cords rather than embryos.

But the NIH guidelines published Wednesday talk about embryos, not umbilical cords. "This proposal would result in federal sponsorship and funding of experiments in which living human embryos are dissected and killed - a clear violation of federal law," the National Right to Life Committee said in its statement.

Indeed, federal law forbids government funding of human embryo research. (The law reads that appropriated funds may not be used "for the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death....")

But the NIH says its stem-cell research guidelines do not violate that law. Dr. Harold Varmus, the NIH director, says the stem cells now available to federal researchers were developed by researchers using private funds, not tax dollars.

His position is supported by lawyers in the Department of Health and Human Services, who said federal funding of stem cell research is legal because, technically speaking, the cells are not embryos.

A biology book will tell you that a human embryo becomes a fetus about eight weeks after conception. The National Right to Life Committee and other pro-life groups will tell you that a baby is a baby from the moment of conception.

Earlier this year, President Clinton directed the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to consider whether government funding should be used to support embryonic cell research. In May, the Commission issued a report recommending that the NIH be permitted to fund "pluripotent cell research" (that's what scientists call it). The NIH guidelines published Wednesday generally follow the Commission's recommendations.

In February, 70 members of Congress sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, claiming that human stem cell research would be a violation of federal law. They noted that stem cell research is predicated on the death of an unborn baby.

On Wednesday, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) called the proposed NIH guidelines a sham. "They attempt to give a glow of respectability to truly barbaric and grotesque experiments on human beings," Smith said. Smith is a leading congressional proponent of the pro-life movement.

Under the NIH guidelines, cells used in NIH-funded research would come from "early human embryos" that were "in excess of clinical need" at fertility clinics - the leftovers of in vitro fertilization, in other words. The NIH makes it clear that the "owners" or parents of the "early human embryos" must give their permission for use of the embryos.

They must also be informed that the embryos "will not survive the human pluripotent stem cell derivation process."

The NIH argues that federal funding of stem-cell research would have benefits beyond new treatments for disease: "Federal funding will provide oversight and direction that would be lacking if this research were the sole province of private sources of funding and will also help ensure that the results of research will be accessible to the public."

The NIH draft guidelines are now subject to sixty days of public comment, after which an NIH committee will begin drawing up final guidelines.

The NIH says it will not fund research using human pluripotent stem cells until final guidelines are published in the Federal Register and an oversight process is in place.