WASHINGTON -- In a decision likely to ignite a firestorm among abortion foes, the National Institutes of Health announced yesterday that it will begin funding the medically promising field of human stem cell research, despite a federal ban on studies using human embryos.
Stem cells -- the earliest cells from which the body's organs are developed -- could hold the secret to treating a wide range of disorders, including heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, spinal cord injury and diabetes, as well as for producing now-scarce transplant organs.
"There is tremendous potential medical benefit that can come from this research," NIH Director Harold Varmus said.
He said that the work holds "very rich scientific possibilities" and that NIH had concluded it was "legally entitled to do" the research.
The controversy flared in November when two groups of scientists funded with private money announced they had isolated stem cells for the first time and had succeeded in growing a supply of them for research.
Scientists from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine cultured stem cells that they derived from fetal tissues donated by women who had had elective abortions. A second group from the University of Wisconsin isolated stem cells from unused embryos donated by couples who had been treated at fertility clinics.
Federal funding of research using fetal tissue is allowed, but the work is subject to government oversight.
In concluding that working with stem cells grown from embryos is legally acceptable despite the ban, NIH -- which can bring vast federal resources to the research -- made the distinction between the cells and their origin, stressing that the research will focus on the cells themselves, rather than directly on embryos.
These cells "do not have the capacity to develop into a human being," the NIH's legal team concluded. Added Varmus, "The ban concerns embryos, and defines them as organisms. These cells are not organisms."
Dr. John Gearhart, who directed the Hopkins research, said the decision lends credibility to a field that had existed under a moral cloud and would speed research "by years."
"It's going to give us the opportunity to get some real money into this field, and it's going to mean that we can get some other labs to help," he said. "We can get the best people working on this, a critical mass."
Gearhart, whose work has been funded by a California biotechnology firm, said he plans to submit a grant application to the NIH in June.
Abortion opponents condemned the action, insisting the research was still a violation of the ban, which was first imposed by Congress three years ago.
"NIH may think it can protect itself by requiring that the embryos actually be killed by someone not receiving federal funds, or by requiring the federally funded researcher to clock out when he kills the embryos -- but these would be subterfuges and do violence to the clear intent of the law," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
Varmus pointed out that "ethical concerns cut both ways, and ethically we have to be concerned with the health of human beings."
NIH said it would develop guidelines and safeguards for research into stem cells, and that it would not fund any such studies until the oversight process was in place and guidelines were disseminated to the research committee, a process Varmus said could take "a couple of months."
NIH emphasized that "federal funding will provide oversight and direction that would be lacking if this research were the sole province of industry and academe."
But the latest chapter in medical research will almost certainly provoke another battle on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers who oppose abortion also oppose any work that involves human embryos -- which they view as the taking of a life.
This "is the latest step by the Clinton administration to treat human beings as property to be manipulated and destroyed," said Republican Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey.
Others see the work as life-affirming, and do not believe NIH's decision violates Congressional intent "because Congress dealt only with embryos," said Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/20/99