Stem Cell Sense
NIH research guidelines avoid some moral minefields.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

BY LIMITING federal funding to research on stem cells derived from embryos that were created for reproductive purposes and that were slated for disposal, the National Institutes of Health's draft guidelines, issued yesterday, offer an intelligent solution to an issue that demanded great sensitivity. While a decision with such deep moral and ethical considerations shouldn't have been left to scientists alone, the NIH outcome is a good one.

President Obama issued an executive order last month that lifted the ban on federal funding of research on stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001, and he instructed the NIH to develop guidelines for the research. Because stem cells can be transformed into different kinds of cells, scientists (and quite a few hopeful patients and their loved ones) believe them to hold the key to cures for a host of debilitating diseases and conditions, such as Parkinson's. But because stem cell lines are grown from human embryos, many people have ethical or religious objections to their use. President George W. Bush proposed a compromise that limited federal funding to a set of existing stem cell lines. But they proved too few, limiting potential research.

The draft guidelines hew closely to those at other entities, such as the National Academy of Sciences. Would-be parents who go to clinics for in vitro fertilization generally create more embryos than will be implanted, and embryos not used are destroyed or kept frozen. The guidelines would allow couples to donate embryos for research, as long as they are not paid and are fully informed of their options. Federal money still wouldn't be used to create the stem cell lines from such embryos, but if that work is done with private money, federally funded research could make use of those stem cells. Above all, federal funds wouldn't be used to create embryos for use in research. After a public comment period, final guidelines will be issued by July 7.

The NIH apparently based its decision partly on scientific considerations -- that the new limitations wouldn't unduly restrict research -- and partly on other considerations. Pointing out that there is "broad public and scientific support for stem cell research" on lines derived from embryos created for reproductive purposes, the NIH's acting director, Raynard S. Kington, said that there isn't support for stem cells derived "from other sources." That political assessment really is a job for the White House. But delegation -- or abdication, depending on your point of view -- in this case produced a sensible result.

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