WASHINGTON -- A federal ban on human embryo research does not apply to studies using the new "master cell" technology that might one day treat heart disease, diabetes and other killers, the head of the National Institutes of Health announced today.
NIH director Harold Varmus said his agency will soon finance such research.
At issue are embryonic stem cells, the basic or primordial cells from which all of a body's tissues and organs develop. With private funding, these cells have recently been derived from embryonic tissue and then grown in laboratories.
The hope is that scientists can learn how to use them to treat disease, but researchers have recently warned that without federal financing to do so, the work would take many more years.
Congress has banned federal money for research that involves human embryos. But Varmus announced today that a legal evaluation of that ban concluded that these laboratory-grown cells -- which could never grow into an entire human being -- do not constitute an embryo. Thus, the NIH can finance research to use them to hopefully create new treatments, Varmus said.
"The scientific potential here is tremendous and we would clearly be limited" if the NIH could not participate in such research, Varmus told President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
"It is appropriate for NIH to support this research and we intend to do so," Varmus said.
The advisory commission is studying the scientific and ethical implications of research involving human embryonic stem cells. Some anti-abortion groups contend that cell research is morally unacceptable because it begins with the destruction of human embryos.
Two researchers have been successful in isolating and growing human stem cells. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, using tissue from aborted fetuses, culled stem cells from the tissue and then caused the stem cells to multiply in a lab. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin used early-stage embryos that had been donated by couples undergoing fertility treatments at "in vitro" fertilization clinics and who had consented to their unused embryos being used in the research.
It also may be possible for scientists to use cloning techniques to derive stem cells, but that hasn't been done yet.
Scientists don't yet know how to use these stem cells to create treatments. However, these cells naturally would go on to form various tissues and organs in the body.
If scientists can learn how to control that process and switch on the proper genes to direct which tissues the cells form, they might one day be able to grow heart tissue that could, for example, replace the damaged tissue of someone with congestive heart failure. Or, researchers could grow new pancreas cells for a diabetic.
Varmus cautioned that the NIH will not immediately start handing out money for the research. Over the next few months, the agency, with guidance from the bioethics commission and Congress, will draw up guidelines that must be strictly followed for scientists to win NIH funding for their research.