February 23, 2024

New stem cell guidelines too political for scientists

A step forward or more of the same?

New rules about federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research have been released by the US National Institutes of Health. As expected, they made no one happy and could even be interpreted as a reversion to the science-by-politics under President Bush.

Scientists who do research with hESCs were disappointed because the Obama administration has refused to fund experiments with human cloning or parthenogenesis (stimulating an unfertilized egg to divide). However, it will be much easier for them to get funding for research on "spare" IVF embryos, provided that the parents consent. No funding will be available if the donors have been compensated or induced in any way.

"I think it is a huge step forward," said R. Alta Charo, an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who had a role in shaping the guidelines. "They are making it absolutely possible to move this field forward and fund the research in a responsible way."

But one of the leading US stem cell scientists, Irving Weissman, of Stanford University, was exasperated by what he regarded as political expediency. "The policy banning funding of other stem cell lines produced by transferring the genetic material from a patient to an egg is a terrible disappointment," he said. "It seems inconsistent with the president’s promise to allow scientific facts to determine science policy… their only justification for not funding research on these lines was that SCNT [somatic cell nuclear transfer] didn’t have public support."

And foes of embryo research were disappointed, if not surprised. "For the first time in history, the federal government will encourage the destruction of human life at a very early stage for federally funded research," Richard Doerflinger of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops told the Washington Post. "These guidelines encourage researchers to go out and destroy embryos for taxpayer-funded research… You and I were once human embryos, and each embryo has the inherent potential to grow into you and me." ~ Washington Post, July 7; Stanford School of Medicine, July 6