WASHINGTON _ President Clinton has nixed aproposal that would have greatly expanded scientists'ability to study the process of fertilization and embryomaturation at its very earliest stages. It would havenecessitated the creation of human embryos expressly forconducting experiments.

On Friday, Clinton directed National Institutes of Health(NIH) director Harold Varmus not to allocate any grantmoney for projects in which human embryos are createdsolely for research purposes. Research-based in vitrofertilization of oocytes (female gametocytes) under strictrules was an integral part of new guidelines developed byan NIH-appointed Human Embryo Research Panel lastSeptember and formally presented to Varmus and hishighest level advisory committee on Friday.

Although Varmus' advisory committee unanimouslyrecommended that the NIH adopt the guidelines, Clintonrejected the most controversial part of the proposal. "Iappreciate the work of the committees that haveconsidered this complex issue and I understand thatadvances in in vitro fertilization research and other areascould derive from such work," he said in a statementreleased late Friday. "However, I do not believe thatfederal funds should be used to support the creation ofhuman embryos for research purposes and I have directedthat the NIH not allocate any resources for suchresearch."

After eight months of deliberation, the 19-memberHuman Embryo Research Panel concluded that a humanembryo "warrants serious moral consideration as adeveloping form of human life" but does not have thesame "moral status" as the infants, children and adultswho could benefit from research.

As a result, the panel condoned the use of federal fundsfor projects involving in vitro fertilization of oocytes onlyif the research by its very nature could not otherwise bevalidly conducted (i.e., oocyte maturation andfertilization studies) and if it were necessary for thevalidity of a study that had potentially outstandingscientific and therapeutic value.

The major source of embryos for researchers today areso-called "spare" embryos donated by couples from invitro fertilization (IVF) clinics who no longer need them,for whatever reason. Clinton's statement left open thepossibility of federal funding for research on spareembryos. However, spare embryos are in short supplyand don't permit certain types of important studies, suchas studies of the process of fertilization itself.

There are several potential sources of unfertilized eggsfor researchers, including oocytes donated by women inIVF and infertility treatment programs and by womenundergoing scheduled pelvic surgery. In addition, oocytescould be donated by women and girls who have died orcould be extracted from aborted female fetuses. Scientistshave argued that such oocytes could be fertilized in vitroto perform studies that could lead to advances ininfertility treatment and shed new light on inheritedgenetic disorders, contraception and childhood andreproductive cancers.

According to the Human Embryo Research Panel'sSeptember report, national regulatory bodies in severalcountries, including Britain, Canada and Australia, haveapproved and licensed the practice of fertilizing oocytesfor research purposes under specific guidelines. In 1979,the U.S. Ethics Advisory Board concluded that researchinvolving the fertilization of donated oocytes wasethically acceptable in order to establish the safety andefficacy of in vitro fertilization.

Brigid Hogan, a professor at Vanderbilt University inNashville, Tenn., and science co-chair of the HumanEmbryo Research Panel, told BioWorld that she wasdisappointed by Clinton's decision to prohibit federalfunding of research involving oocyte fertilization. "Thiswas clearly a political decision and you don't have tolook very far to understand why," she said. "On the otherhand, important research can still go ahead."

Hogan said that the American public's lack ofunderstanding of human embryo research and the panel'sgoals left a void which the "religious right" filled. (Anti-abortion activists and religious groups have opposedlifting the ban on moral and ethical grounds.) Panelmembers received letters from people, complete withpictures of 8- to 12-week-old aborted fetuses, excoriatingthem for proposing that fetuses be aborted for scientificexperiments.

"We were getting anti-abortion mail while we weredeveloping guidelines for the study of preimplantationembryos, small groups of undifferentiated cells with nonervous system," said Hogan. "People desperately needmore information and more education on this subject sothey cannot be exploited by the religious right."

If adopted, the panel's proposed new guidelines forhuman embryo research _ even if only applicable tospare embryos _ would end a 15-year ban on federalfunding of such work. Varmus will supposedly make thefinal decision in the coming months. n

-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.