BETHESDA, Md. _ A National Institutes of Health (NIH) advisorypanel on Tuesday called for federal funding of research on humanembryos, with stringent controls. After eight months of deliberation,the 19-member panel concluded that a human embryo "warrantsserious moral consideration as a developing form of human life" butdoes not have the same "moral status" as the infants, children andadults who could benefit from such research."Our main conclusion is that it is acceptable public policy to fundresearch on the human embryo using stringent guidelines," said theNIH panel's co-chair on policy and Georgetown University lawprofessor Patricia King. But the panel recommended that an ad hocNIH advisory panel be established to review all requests and protocolsinvolving funding of human embryo research for a minimum of threeyears.King said that federal funding of human embryo research wouldprovide "consistent ethical and scientific review at the national level"to a field of research that has been ongoing in the private sector withoutsuch review and public scrutiny. Although NIH guidelines would notapply directly to research financed by the private sector, panelmembers expressed the hope that the new ethical and scientificstandards would affect all research.If adopted by the NIH, the panel's proposed guidelines could end a 15-year ban on federal funding of human embryo research. Since the NIHRevitalization Act of 1993 opened the door for the agency to fund suchresearch, roughly 70 grant applications have been received andreviewed. According to NIH officials, backlogged grants will not beawarded until guidelines are finalized.The Human Embryo Research panel's proposed guidelines will bepresented and discussed at a two-day December meeting of theadvisory committee to NIH Director Harold Varmus. He will make thefinal decision on what guidelines, if any, will govern grant awards.Panel member and Vanderbilt University cell biologist Brigid Hogansaid that research on human embryos could help men and womensuffering from infertility as well as shed light on severe inheritedgenetic disorders, contraception and childhood and reproductivecancers. "More basic research of the type funded by NIH would lead toimprovement in a number of areas," she told BioWorld.No Research After Primitive Streak AppearsThe NIH panel concluded that the federal government should not fundresearch on human embryos older than 14 days, the time at which the"primitive streak" usually appears. The primitive streak is thebeginning of a nervous system.Panel member Ronald Green, a professor of religion and ethics atDartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, said that an embryoless than 14 days old lacks developmental individuation (it can stilldivide into identical twins or recombine into a single individual),sentience, differentiated tissues and bodily form. "It cannot experiencepain and has no brain activity," said Green on Tuesday. "Nature itselfis prodigal with this entity. Sixty percent of embryos are spontaneouslyaborted in the first days and weeks of pregnancy."Green said the panel concluded that it was unreasonable to put themoral claims of embryos at this stage of development, calledpreimplantation embryos (before implantation in the uterine wall),before the claims of children and adults who could benefit fromresearch on fertility, genetic diseases and cancer. But the panelconcluded that, "for the present," the federal government should notfund research on embryos older than 14 days.The panel was given the task of defining areas of human embryoresearch which were either acceptable, unacceptable or needed specialreview for federal funding. Areas defined as acceptable for federalfunding included:- studies aimed at improving chances for a successful pregnancy;- research on the process of fertilization;- studies on egg activation and the relative role of paternally-derivedand maternally-derived genetic material in embryo development;- studies in human egg maturation and freezing followed byfertilization to determine developmental and chromosomal normality;- research involving preimplantation genetic diagnosis; and- nuclear transplantation into a fertilized or unfertilized egg without anucleus (also known as an enucleated egg) for research to circumventor correct an inherited cytoplasmic defect. (This last category wasendorsed by only a narrow majority of panel members _ many feltthat transplantation of a nucleus needed further ethical review.)Areas of research deemed unacceptable for federal funding by thepanel included:- cloning of preimplantation embryos prior to transfer to the womb;- studies designed to transplant embryonic or adult nuclei into anenucleated egg, including nuclear cloning, in order to duplicate agenome or to increase the number of embryos with the same genotype;- any research beyond the point of embryonic development at whichthe neural tube begins to close;- preimplantation genetic diagnosis for sex selection except for sex-linked genetic diseases;- development of human-nonhuman and human-human chimeras (crossspecies fertilization);- attempted transfer of human embryos into nonhuman animals forgestation; and- transfer of human embryos for extrauterine or abdominal pregnancy.The NIH panel's conclusions about human embryo research havealready come under attack. "It is not right to manipulate and destroyunconsenting human subjects at any stage," said Richard Doerflinger,an official of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Nor is itright to create human beings simply in order to use and discard them -whether such creation is by fertilization in the laboratory, embryosplitting, or by other bizarre techniques now being contemplated byresearchers."Doerflinger and other public groups, including the American LifeLeague, denounced the panel's proposed guidelines for federal fundingof human embryo research and vowed to wage a fight, complete withCongressional hearings, against any change in NIH policy. n

-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

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