February 22, 2024

US scientists publish guidelines for ethical stem cell research

American stem cell scientists now have guidelines which will allow them to handle, destroy and clone human embryos ethically. A long- awaited report from the National Academies of Sciences recommends thorough documentation and close scrutiny of embryo research even though it sets few firm ethical boundaries.

Given the prestige of the National Academies, these recommendations are likely to be widely followed although they have no legal status. At the moment, the Bush Administration effectively discourages embryonic stem cell research and there are no coordinated national guidelines for scientists to follow. “A standard set of requirements for deriving, storing, distributing, and using embryonic stem cell lines — one to which the entire US scientific community adheres — is the best way for this research to move forward,” explained one of the authors of the report, Richard O. Hynes, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Amongst its recommendations are:

  • cloning of embryos for research should be acceptable

  • embryos should not be allowed to develop for more than 14 days before they are destroyed

  • embryonic stem cells should not be inserted in primate blastocysts or human blastocysts

  • researchers should obtain consent from both sperm and egg donors

  • women should not be paid for donating their eggs for research

    One controversial area of embryo research is the creation of chimeras, or inter-species hybrids. The report discourages this but stops short of prohibiting it. This paves the way for the creation of a brain made of human nerve cells in a mouse — an experiment which is ready to begin at Stanford University. The report says merely that there should be an “ethically sensitive” management plan in such cases.

    The NAS report was a strong endorsement of therapeutic cloning. Unsurprisingly it was applauded by bioethicists like Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania for its emphasis on informed consent and and criticised by the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity for defying a recent United Nations declarationon cloning. In fact, the report notably refused to rule out reproductive cloning, saying merely that it was “ethically objectionable at this time” because of medical problems.

    With the debate over abortion and the morning-after pill in mind, the report also considered the sticky problem of conscientious objection. Describing this as a “privilege” rather than a right, it states that no one should be forced to work on embryos. But neither should a conscientious objector be allowed to withhold clinical care from a donor or recipient.