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New Guidelines to Permit Stem Cell Research

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 23, 2000 (Washington) -- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that promising but controversial stem cell research is eligible for federal funding -- but it must adhere to carefully worded federal guidelines released Wednesday. The hope is that stem cells, obtained from either donated embryos or, under certain circumstances, aborted pregnancies, will be able to change into a wide variety of more specific cells that can repair diseased tissues and allow them to function normally. The use of these primitive cells could herald a new generation of treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes to Parkinson's disease.

President Clinton has endorsed the approach as having "potentially staggering benefits." However, antiabortion critics charge it will be necessary to destroy human embryos to obtain the stem cells, a process they condemn as both immoral and illegal.

"Stem cell research is nothing more than dismembering a human being," Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., tells WebMD. Dickey helped draft a measure banning the use of federal funds for experiments in which embryos are damaged. Now, he says, he may challenge the new NIH guidelines in court or try to get the agency's funding reduced in order to halt stem cell research.

"We're well aware ... this involves the destruction of an embryo," Lana Skirboll, PhD, director of the office of science policy at NIH, tells WebMD. "The important issue is that we set forth conditions under which we will allow investigators to use stem cells that were derived from embryos [only] under certain conditions."

Sources at NIH say the new rules are the product of discussions among dozens of experts. They also take into account thousands of comments from the public, mostly negative, toward stem cell studies.

According to the guidelines, which officially take effect on Friday, NIH funds may be used for research on stem cells only if they were derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments. Such tissue is almost always marked for destruction anyway, according to NIH experts. It also appears the new guidelines go to considerable lengths to separate the researchers from making decisions regarding the embryo itself.

In addition, researchers must specify to the tissue donor whether information that could reveal his or her identify will be retained. It may be necessary to track down a donor if it's determined that he or she has an infectious disease. For their part, donors aren't allowed to say where they want their embryonic tissue to go, or to whom. Additionally, under U.S. rules embryos can't be sold, but they can be donated for research.

The guidelines are similar to an earlier draft version, but with additional stress on informed consent and access to information about the experiments. British authorities have recently taken a more permissive approach, allowing researchers there to clone human embryos for various studies in the early embryonic stages.

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