The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine today called for the creation of a new layer of oversight at institutions where research on human embryonic stem (ES) cells is conducted. Although the academy panel that drafted the new guidelines makes several recommendations about the use of these cells, it leaves many of the tough questions to local committees.
The panel's report calls on every institution that hosts human ES cell research to set up an Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight (ESCRO) committee containing experts well versed in the field's scientific, medical, legal, and ethical questions. In addition to keeping track of all research involving human ES cells, the committees are urged to review everything related to the derivation of new cell lines, whether created from leftover blastocysts from fertility treatments, through nuclear transfer (otherwise known as research cloning), or "made specifically for research" by in vitro fertilization of donor sperm and egg.
The report dwells at length on the need for informed consent from donors of eggs, sperm, blastocysts, or somatic cells for ES cell research. It also confirms that no research should be allowed on embryos over 14 days old. The committee saw only limited scientific potential in other approaches for generating cell lines that might bypass ethical difficulties (Science, 24 December 2004, p. 2174).
On the controversial topic of using ES cells to create chimeras—animals that contain the genome of a different animal in some of their cells—the panel notes that chimeras are valuable for testing the qualities of human ES cells. However, because pluripotent cells have the potential to turn into many kinds of cells, the committee says no animal ES cells should be injected into human blastocysts, and no human ES cells should be allowed into the blastocysts of other primates. And because ES cells can theoretically travel to the gonads and produce sperm and egg cells, no animal that has received human ES cells should be allowed to breed.
The panel also recommends creation of a national entity to periodically assess the adequacy of the guidelines and provide a forum for continuing discussion.
The recommendations make sense, says Irving Weissman of Stanford University, who was not on the panel. "These issues transcend the usual expertise of institutional review boards."