Private panel poses ethics guidelines for stem cell study

Voluntary standards suggested for researchers, sponsors, journals

April 27, 2005|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

With embryonic stem cell research forging ahead amid an emotional debate over its morality, a national advisory panel issued ethical guidelines for scientists yesterday to protect embryo donors, ensure proper records and restrict experiments that would transplant stem cells between humans and animals.

The panel from the National Academies, a nonprofit organization that advises the nation on scientific and medical issues, said it will be up to research institutions, scientific journals and those backing the research to ensure the guidelines are followed.

They do not have the force of law.

Although the federal government restricts the stem cell research it pays for, an increasing portion of such research is being funded with state or private money, with little regulation.

"The scientific community ... has wanted to have guidance on how to move forward responsibly," said Jonathan D. Moreno, a University of Virginia biomedical ethicist who co-chaired the panel. "Scientists want to know this science can be done ethically and responsibly."

The panel's suggestions include a ban on payments to embryo donors, a prohibition on breeding animals infused with human cells and a requirement that all human embryonic stem cell research - no matter who pays for it - be overseen by ethics panels specifically formed for that purpose.

The group also said institutions should keep a registry of embryonic stem cells that includes their origin, who is using them and for what purpose. And it said embryos used for research should not be grown in the lab for more than 14 days - the point at which the central nervous system begins to form.

Emotional debate

In the preface to its 131-page report, the Committee on Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research recognized that the experiments - which often use early-stage embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization - have created an emotional debate among well-meaning people.

On one side are those who believe embryonic stem cells, which scientists think can be coaxed to turn into any kind of human cell, hold the promise of treating currently incurable diseases. On the other are those who say destroying early-stage embryos used to produce stem cells is at best a violation of human dignity and at worst tantamount to murder.

The Bush administration has limited federal funding to a handful of stem cell colonies, known as lines, that existed before August 2001. But the potential of the research has led to increased government funding in other countries, along with private and state investment in the United States.

Yesterday, the committee said its mission was to issue ethical guidelines in a field that is burgeoning, not rehash whether embryos should be used at all.

"Embryonic stem cell research is under way," said Richard O. Hynes, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology cancer researcher who co-chaired the 10-member volunteer group that included scientists, ethicists, lawyers and others.

He said the absence of federal regulation has led to uncertainties for groups concerned about unethical research, for others who want more research and think it's being delayed, and for scientists who want to perform experiments in a consistent manner that allows them to share results easily.

But that did not satisfy critics of embryonic stem cell research.

"I think the National Academy of Sciences here has not engaged the ethical question with sufficient depth," said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia and a neuroscientist with a doctorate from Yale University. "Their position is that [it] is going to be allowable, and that certainly represents a violation of the integrity of a living, growing human being."

Other reactions to the report ranged from praise to concern about the burden of implementing the regulations. John Gearhart, a Johns Hopkins University developmental biologist, and his colleague, Dr. Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry who serves on the President's Council on Bioethics, generally praised the effort, saying guidelines are needed.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," McHugh said. "I like very many of the [guidelines] that I've read, including that they aren't to pay women to give their eggs and pressure poor people to give these kinds of things."

Letter and spirit

Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of the journal Science and the former president of Stanford University, also endorsed some of the guidelines. But he said faculty members already weary from volunteering on ethics panels might hesitate to volunteer for another.

He also noted that scientific journals get submissions from all over the world, and guidelines in other countries might differ - making it easier to meet the spirit of the rules than the letter.

But Kennedy said he expected the guidelines largely to be embraced.

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