The National Institutes of Health will investigate whether doctors are taking tissue from live fetuses for use in research, according to Dr. Charles R. McCarthy, who probes violations of law by federally funded researchers.

McCarthy said the investigation is a response to a charge by the Foundation on Economic Trends and social activist Jeremy Rifkin that "physicians do not perform tests on aborted fetuses to determine whether they are dead prior to removing tissues or organs" for research use.

Under federal and state law, fetal tissue and organs are considered in the same way as organs taken from adults for transplantation or research. These include hearts, kidneys and livers, routinely removed just after the donor's death is certified by a doctor independent of a transplant team.

The foundation said it has documents showing that fetal tissue is taken without such precautions and before fetuses are declared dead. Some state laws require that an independent doctor and the attending physician at an abortion must verify fetal death before organs can be taken.

The issue is sensitive among researchers as use of human fetal tissue increases and it becomes clear that transplanting fetal cells may be an important therapy for many diseases, ranging from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's.

Rifkin's petition cites the National Disease Research Interchange (NDRI) of Philadelphia, which pays clinics and hospitals for organs then passed to researchers.

"There is an almost limitless amount of human tissues which are wasted, trashed, incinerated, dumped in the ocean, thrown away," NDRI President Lee Ducat said in a telephone interview yesterday. She said the NDRI works to find human tissues that may prove valuable in research.

Ducat said that, while it is not her job to assure that fetal tissues were collected after death, she believes that hospitals and clinics supplying the tissues acquire them lawfully.

After autopsies, surgery and abortions, tissues are simply discarded, she said, adding that the NDRI has collected and sent to researchers about 32,000 specimens in its seven years of operation. She said about one percent of such tissue is from fetuses. Of about 9,000 specimens expected to be taken this year, about 90 will be fetal, she said.

The petition also questions whether the NIH has illegally failed to regulate the taking of such organs.

McCarthy said he believes that the NIH complies with the law by requiring organizations receiving funds to sign a statement saying they will follow state and federal law. Then, the NIH usually relies on state enforcement of laws involving research with human tissue.

Ducat said she believes that attending physicians at abortions normally determine when a fetus is dead. The NDRI "picks up cadaver tissue" six to 16 hours later, she said. "The time element itself guarantees that it is cadaverous tissue."

McCarthy said the NIH will investigate to determine the NDRI's responsibilities under state and federal law and whether organs are being collected and distributed properly. McCarthy said he could not say how long the probe may take.

Fetal cells are being used in research that includes experiments leading to possible transplantion of the cells into adult organs damaged by disease or injury.

In one set of experiments at Yale University, fetal cells were injected at the site of failing brain cells in monkeys with a Parkinson's-like condition, including paralysis. In a short time, the young cells began to produce brain chemicals necessary to reverse paralysis completely.