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Funds for embryo stem cell research remain uncertain after cancellation

WASHINGTON (BP)–The future of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research remained uncertain after the Bush administration canceled the first meeting of a committee to review applications for grants for the controversial experimentation.

The National Institutes of Health called off the April 25 meeting at the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to The Washington Post. The cancellation came as HHS continues a review ordered by President Bush of guidelines issued last year in the Clinton administration permitting government funds for research using stem cells derived from embryos. The procurement of such cells requires the destruction of the embryos.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which a wide variety of cells and tissues in the human body develop. Their isolation for the first time in late 1998 provided hope for treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

“The bottom line is [HHS] felt that it makes the most sense to hold off until the guideline review that the department is doing is complete,” department spokesman Bill Hall told The Post. On April 24, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson told a Senate subcommittee he did not expect the review to be completed and given to him until early June, according to a Reuters report cited by the Internet site Pro-life Infonet.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research responded to the cancellation with approval of the action but with uncertainty at what would happen eventually.

“The decision was sensible and prudent under the circumstances,” said C. Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Secretary Thompson said that NIH’s stem cell protocols would be evaluated before they went forward. He is simply following through.

“NIH did not say it was doing nothing. It merely canceled a meeting. We need to be vigilant. I am cautiously optimistic that Secretary Thompson will do the right thing in the end.”

ERLC President Richard Land and Mitchell wrote Bush, who had expressed opposition to funding such research, in early March asking him to clarify his position by repealing the NIH guidelines. The ERLC joined nine other pro-life organizations in another letter at about the same time making the same request of the president. The other groups signing the letter included the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council and National Association of Evangelicals.

The NIH rules issued last August brought protests from pro-lifers inside and outside Congress. The guidelines allow federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells has to be privately funded to fit within NIH rules.

Congress adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The ERLC, as well as pro-life leaders in Congress and other pro-life organizations, criticized the NIH action last year as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life.

The cancellation of the NIH committee meeting occurred as evidence mounts that stem cells from non-embryonic sources may be as effective as those from the tiniest unborn human beings.

“Recent developments in adult stem-cell research may soon make the argument for embryonic stem cells moot,” Mitchell said. “Not only have adult stem cells been shown to be astonishingly flexible, but their use would avoid the unnecessary destruction of unborn human beings.”

A New Jersey company recently reported it had developed a process to extract stem cells from placentas and the cells are the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, according to The New York Times. “This will make obsolete the need to use human fetuses or blastocysts as sources of stem cells,” said John Haines, chief executive of the Anthrogenesis Corp., according to The Times. Some experts said there was no evidence yet to support the report, The Times reported.

The report followed on the heels of an April 10 article in the journal Tissue Engineering that revealed scientists have been successful in growing cartilage, muscle and bone cells in the laboratory from cells found in human fat. The researchers used fat taken by liposuction from patients’ hips and thighs to produce the cells. The results suggest the possible availability of another source for stem cells that does not have ethical drawbacks.

Other recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources as umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow can be effective. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources because the killing of a human being is not required.

Meanwhile, advocates of embryonic stem-cell research were dealt a serious blow in early March. A study using fetal stem cells in Parkinson’s disease patients failed to demonstrate a benefit and also had crippling side effects. The research results, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed the cells grew too much in about 15 percent of patients, causing them to jerk uncontrollably.