TOKYO--Japanese scientists would be allowed to derive and conduct research on human embryonic stem cells under guidelines expected to be approved this week by a top-level advisory body. Researchers say they are satisfied with the guidelines, which have been drawn up with little of the rancor that has characterized the debate in the United States.
Human embryonic stem cells, which theoretically can develop into any of the body's cells, may ultimately provide laboratory-grown replacement organs and treatments for such diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But embryos are destroyed when stem cells are harvested, making their use controversial. Unlike in the United States, there has been no organized lobbying against their use in Japan, and few politicians have addressed the issue.
A committee working under Japan's highest science advisory body is set to finalize its guidelines at a meeting scheduled for 1 August. Barring unforeseen glitches, the guidelines could be put into practice as early as this fall, clearing the way for any researcher in Japan to establish human embryonic stem cell lines and start using them for basic research; use of the cells for reproductive purposes, cloning, medical treatment, or drug screening is expressly prohibited.
Under the proposed guidelines, all plans to establish embryonic stem cell lines and all research using the cells will have to be approved and monitored by each institution's ethical review board and by a newly established review board under the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology, Sports, and Culture. Researchers must have demonstrated an ability to handle stem cells through prior work with animal stem cells. Stem cells may only be harvested from "spare" embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization, and the embryos must be donated, with donors giving written consent for their use.
"We can now go ahead in making plans for research in this very exciting field," says Norio Nakatsuji, a developmental biologist at Kyoto University who is likely to be one of the first in Japan to establish such cell lines.