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Stem Cell Research: Scientists Wait as Bush Decides

WebMD Health News

March 15, 2001 (Washington) -- Scientists are casting a worried eye toward Washington, as federal funding for possible disease-busting embryonic stem cell research is in limbo.

And those with religious and moral objections to the research, which requires the destruction of microscopic human embryos, are looking on -- and lobbying -- just as anxiously.

President George W. Bush and his health secretary Tommy Thompson are expected to make a funding decision later this year.

In a legal maneuver, former President Bill Clinton OK'd the controversial research during his term in office. No money's gone out yet to researchers, however, as Bush reviews Clinton's move. Meanwhile, last week, Christian groups filed a lawsuit against Thompson, arguing that funding the research would be both illegal and immoral.

The potential for stem cells has electrified most in the biomedical research community. Early research suggests that the cells, which have not yet matured into specific cell types, like muscle cells or blood cells, could be multiplied and controlled to make healthy cells of various kinds. That could be a formidable weapon against a variety of dreaded ailments, from Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's, and Alzheimer's diseases, to diabetes and cancer.

Today marks the federal deadline for researchers seeking funding to submit key information to the National Institutes of Health. But few investigators are stepping forward for this cycle's federal money.

Federal law prohibits U.S. spending on research that destroys embryos, but the Clinton administration made a special legal ruling that said that the law wouldn't prevent the NIH from funding stem cell research. The ruling stipulated, however, that federal money couldn't go toward the actual removal of the cells from the embryos.

The main source of the embryos would be "excess" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics around the country.

Under stem cell research guidelines developed by the NIH during Clinton's tenure, embryos could not be created simply for the purpose of providing stem cells for researchers. And couples who had donated embryos to fertility clinics would have to consent to letting the embryos be used for stem cell research.

The scientific community says it is hopeful that Bush will end up upholding Clinton's decision to permit funding, but is fearful of the current climate.

Pioneering stem cell researcher John Gearhart, PhD, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells WebMD, "We're interested in federal funding, but we decided not to submit an application. If you're going to expend energies, you would like to know that there is at least the possibility of a good outcome. Currently, I think I would rather sit back and wait and see what the determination by Tommy Thompson and Mr. Bush is going to be."

Tony Mazzaschi, a biomedical research expert at the Association of American Medical Colleges, tells WebMD, "Until things are clarified, why go through the effort and hang yourself out there. There's a lot of fear of retribution, I'm afraid, from protesters."

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