Research using cells from human embryos received an important seal of approval this week. In a decision that Stanford biologist Paul Berg calls "gutsy," the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) recommended on 14 July that the federal government should fund not only research on human embryonic stem cells, but also the production of stem cell cultures--even if this involves the destruction of human embryos. In an official notice, the panel says it will send the advice to President Clinton "very soon."
Embryonic cells are thought to have great potential as a possible source of transplant tissue. NBAC, a 17-member group appointed by the president, has been deliberating over ethical guidelines for their use for 9 months. It concluded that only "spare" embryos from fertility clinics--which would otherwise be discarded--should be used for creating stem cell cultures, and only if both donors fully consent. Furthermore, the government ought to establish a permanent watchdog committee to set ethical rules and enforce them.
The decisions--not yet released in written form--could have an impact on legislative debates later this year. Congress passed an amendment to a 1999 appropriations bill that bans U.S. support for any research that might destroy an embryo. That amendment will expire at the beginning of the new fiscal year in October, but House legislators are expected to renew the demand in the bill funding the Department of Health and Human Services for the year 2000. A hearing on this bill has been scheduled tentatively for 21 July.
Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR), a vocal opponent of human embryonic stem cell research, says he will try to persuade his Capitol Hill colleagues to reject NBAC's conclusions. "We believe that science should serve humans, not that humans should serve science," says Dickey. He intends to help take this battle to the courts, if necessary, to prevent federal agencies from funding research that uses cells derived from human embryos.
But Berg, a spokesperson for the American Society for Cell Biology, says NBAC has hammered out a careful position that he hopes will make sense both to scientists and the public. He calls NBAC's recommendations for monitoring the field "heavy" and "bureaucratic," but says they're reasonable if they reassure the public that this research will be guided by ethical principles.