Federal funding for scientists wanting to carry out experiments on stem cells derived from human embryos came another step closer in the US last week. Last Thursday, a group of biologists and lawyers drafted guidelines under which stem cell research could take place. Human embryonic stem cells were successfully isolated and cultured last year by privately funded scientists.
The scientific community believes that further research could lead to therapies for many diseases that are currently untreatable and many scientists in the field have been lobbying for federal funding to be allowed for such research. Under the current ban, scientists cannot use federal money to retrieve stem cells from human embryos as that process would destroy the embryo itself. However, the drafting of ethical guidelines follows in the wake of an earlier attempt by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to allow federal scientists access to stem cells.
With the potentially enormous clinical benefits of stem cell research, the general counsel of the DHHS ruled in January that research using stem cells could be federally supported as long as somebody else had derived them first using private money. But fierce opposition from the powerful anti-abortion lobby has paved the way for an ongoing legal, scientific and political debate that is likely to stretch through the summer and into the congressional budget deliberations in the autumn.