Although congressional legislation could quickly slam it shut, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week opened the door for U.S. scientists to receive federal funding for research on stem cells from human embryos.
These cells can proliferate indefinitely in lab dishes and mature into all the cell types in the human body, but their source has made them controversial. Still, many scientists argue that the stem cells could treat spinal cord injuries, strokes, and illnesses ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease.
Federal laws governing its funding have seemingly prohibited NIH from supporting any research on human embryonic stem cells. Last week, however, NIH walked a legal tightrope by ruling that it now can fund research involving such cells so long as it didn’t support the actual creation of the cells.
Scientists using NIH money for their stem cell studies could procure the cells from other researchers or firms who derive the cells from human embryos. The new ruling stipulates that those embryos must be ones slated for destruction at fertility clinics.
Unlike a proposal just put forth by the British government, NIH’s guidelines don’t permit creating human embryos via cloning technology. That technique can yield stem cells genetically identical to a potential patient, a medical advantage in some cases.
Scientific societies and patient groups hailed NIH’s decision, but a few members of Congress already have vowed to introduce a bill that prevents all federally funded research on human embryonic stem cells. In addition to expressing religious and moral concerns about such research, they argue that stem cells taken from adults work just as well as embryonic cells.