May 3, 2005
KUDOS TO the National Academy of Sciences for ably filling the breach caused by the absence of federal guidelines on human embryonic stem cell research. While we prefer that rules governing research on human tissues be federal and enforceable, the National Academy of Sciences' new voluntary guidelines are a necessary stand-in.
The administration's ban on federal funding for new-line embryonic stem cell research has not slowed its growth. States -- most notably California, through a $3 billion 10-year initiative -- have taken on the role of funder for this breakthrough, not-ready-for-profit science. But funding is just one role; another is ensuring that U.S.-based scientists hew to the same procedural and ethical guidelines so their research can be shared, easily compared and trusted.
States and private funders could require different recordkeeping, disagree on how many days the cells may be grown before testing -- or worse, not set rules at all. And should a promising treatment be found for Parkinson's disease, for example, it's not clear what standard the Food and Drug Administration should use to decide whether it is worthy enough to test on people.
The academy's guidelines include banning payments to embryo donors, requiring informed donor consent and allowing donors to withdraw their consent later; maintaining a database of stem cells listing their (anonymous donor) origin, who is using them and for what; and banning the transplantation of human cells into other primates and animal embryonic cells into a human embryo.
Most important is the idea of stages of review -- oversight committees at each research institution as well as a national group of laypeople and scientists -- to evaluate this important research. Scientists, who were vocal in asking for a solid standard, can now concentrate on their work.
The voluntary guidelines treat only the practical ethics; they do not enter the debate over when life begins and who makes that decision. But stem cell research is like a train that's already left the station. While Americans struggle to come to a consensus on the big questions, it's appropriate to have at least the basic tracks laid down.
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