Stem-Cell Research Will Get U.S. Funding: Pro-Life Groups Slam Use of Embryos

Article excerpt

The head of the National Institutes of Health announced yesterday that the federal government will fund pioneering but controversial stem-cell research that may provide cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases.

Dr. Harold Varmus informed the National Bioethics Advisory Commission that a ban on federal funding of human embryo research does not apply because the cells used in the recently developed stem-cell experiments come from non-living fetuses.

Dr. Varmus, first among the scientists, ethicists and concerned citizens who will testify before the board, said that "the scientific potential here is tremendous and would clearly be limited" if government funding were denied.

The announcement drew quick criticism from Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, a foe of all research involving human embryos. He said the NIH proposes "to offer federal subsidies to researchers who will experiment with cells obtained from human beings ruthlessly killed in the first weeks of life." The research, he said, "depends on the mutilation of children."

The National Right to Life Committee argued the NIH was using a "subterfuge" to "do violence to the clear intent of the law."

The contested research involves microscopic human cells in the first phases of their existence. They were long known to exist and were finally isolated early in December.

Called "primitive" and "immortal" cells, they have the ability to divide limitlessly and to give rise to specialized cells that eventually can develop into toes, ears, brain cells, blood and other body parts.

Scientists speculate that further experimentation will lead to developing the ability to direct stem cells to grow into certain types of tissue that can be used to repair disease- or accident-damaged bodies. Injecting stem cells might delay certain aspects of aging, and the research appears likely to create a new form of medicine.

To date, however, stem-cell research breakthroughs have come only from laboratories funded by the biotechnology industry and private clinics. That's because it was presumed such research fell under the federal funding ban, which applies to universities and research organizations accepting federal grants. …