At long last, the National Institutes of Health has issued guidelines for the use of pluripotent human stem cells (PHSCs) in federally financed research. PHSCs have been described as the biggest breakthrough in medical science in the past decade. Stem cells are derived from week-old embryos and scientists believe that they can be transformed into all kinds of life-saving tissues, including new pancreatic cells to treat diabetes, heart muscle to repair heart attack damage, and neurons to cure Parkinson's disease and to reconnect broken spinal cords.
The NIH guidelines allow federally funded researchers to use stem cells derived from embryos, but not to derive such cells themselves (Since 1996, Congress has forbidden the use of embryos in federal research). NIH also requires that a rigorous procedure for informed consent be followed, so that donors know exactly what the donated embryos will be used for. At the same time, the new rules forbid all types of useful research. For instance, the guidelines restrict the derivation of stem cells to leftover embryos that were created for the purpose of overcoming infertility and forbid the use of stem cells created via cloning techniques.
Stem cells, first isolated by researchers using surplus embryos from fertility treatments, have been extremely controversial. Pro-life advocates suggest that the estimated 150,000 or so embryos that could be made available for research purposes in the U.S. each year are adorable miniature versions of Billy or Sue lying frozen in nitrogen tanks just waiting to begin first grade. That's why pro-lifers are trying to maintain the ban on federally funded stem cell research. Those efforts include a formal letter of protest signed by 70 members to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services challenging HHS's ruling that stem cell research is legal. Opponents also flooded the NIH with negative comments on its proposed guidelines. And now Congressional pro-lifers are pursuing legislation to overturn the NIH guidelines.
Such critics are mistaken. Stem cells are microscopic, undifferentiated masses consisting of a few hundred cells. Indeed, the fact that they are undifferentiated and can be coaxed into becoming a wide variety of human tissues is what makes them so valuable for research and, eventually, medical treatments. Stem cells, like all human cells, contain the normal complement of 46 chromosomes. Despite the pro-life belief that these cells are the moral equivalent of babies, the only difference between, say, a skin cell and a stem cell consists of the "promoter" and "suppressor" proteins that tell the cell what to become. Put slightly differently: If a stem cell is the moral equivalent of a baby, then so are the skin cells we wash down the drain during every shower. (For more on the ethical implications of stem cell research see "Petri Dish Politics," in the December 1999 issue of Reason Magazine.)
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have also argued that such research is no longer necessary. They point to the recent discovery that some types of adult cells can be transformed into other types of cells and claim that researchers don't have to use stem cells from embryos. To be sure, exciting progress is being made with adult cells. But embryonic stem cells may offer advantages that adult cells cannot, including providing tissues immunologically matched precisely with particular patients, younger healthier cells with longer lives, and possibly even a universal tissue transplant kit. For maximum results, research on both adult and stem cells should be pursued.
While the NIH guidelines represent progress, they have nonetheless been seriously compromised by the desire to mollify powerful pro-life critics. By forbidding researchers from deriving their own supply of embryos, federal researchers won't be able to explore one of the more promising techniques for creating tissues for transplantation: taking a skin-cell nucleus from a patient and putting it into an enucleated egg cell, a procedure that grows stem cells that match the patient's immune system perfectly. (Compare this to Britain, where abortion politics are less in play: Last week, the government there announced far more reasonable stem cell guidelines. The British rules allow much of the research that the new NIH guidelines forbid, including the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes and using cloning techniques to create embryonic stem cells.)
Still, the NIH guidelines should at least marginally speed up research since many university and private researchers receive some federal support for their work. If, that is, they survive a brewing legislative battle on Capitol Hill this fall. Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) is proposing a Stem Cell Research Act that would expand the acceptable limits of stem research, while opponents like Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) are proposing leglislation that would ban embryonic stem cell research entirely. As Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patient's Coalition for Urgent Research told the Washington Post, "What patient groups have been saying all along is,'Get on with it. We want this for our loved ones."
The NIH guidelines, though flawed, are a small step toward getting on with research that may save countless lives.