A National Academy of Sciences panel Tuesday called for national oversight of human embryonic stem cell research.
A fast-moving scientific field surrounded by intense political debate, stem cell research must have a uniform monitoring system to ensure both progress and public confidence, the panel argues.
The report lists more than 30 major guidelines covering everything from record-keeping to prohibitions against certain experiments, as well as the outline of a system of local and national oversight panels.
“The guidelines are intended to enhance the integrity of all human embryonic stem cell research, no matter how funded,” said NAS head Bruce Alberts at a briefing introducing the 141-page report. The academy produced the guidelines over the last nine months at the request of the scientific community.
The academy is chartered by Congress to address science-policy issues. The panel’s recommendations have no authority but are meant to form a template for academic and scientific institutions.
Standardizing rules should ease scientific communication and facilitation future requests to the Food and Drug Administration for approval to test stem cell treatments on people, says NAS panel member Richard Hynes.
The guidelines strictly prohibit some experiments:
“ Growing embryos past 14 days to create stem cells. Opponents decry the destruction of embryos necessary to harvest cells.
“ Inserting the cells into primate or human embryos. Fears of human cloning – and similar experiments involving primates – also fuel many of the objections.
It seems unlikely that the NAS report will calm the storm. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the most vocal critics, Tuesday said the guidelines “try to put a good face on an unethical line of research.”
Human embryonic stem cells may some day treat diseases such as juvenile diabetes and Parkinson’s, say biologists. Found inside the early embryo, the cells are the precursors to every type of tissue. If produced from cloned cells genetically identical to a recipient, embryonic stem cells could potentially be grown into rejection-free transplant organs.
A “patchwork of state laws and regulations” now governs embryonic stem cell research, Hynes says. Some states, including Arkansas and Michigan, have banned research. Others, including New Jersey and California, have passed laws encouraging it. The federal government only funds research on 22 approved stem cell lines.
“The field has definitely been waiting for these guidelines. A number of projects have essentially been put on hold until they were completed,” says stem cell researcher George Daley of Children’s Hospital Boston. “These look like very reasonable recommendations to provide oversight, to give the wider community confidence in embryonic stem cell research, and to allow science to move forward.”
Nowhere have the new guidelines been more eagerly awaited than in California, where a six-month-old state organization plans to hand out $3 billion in taxpayer-funded grants for stem-cell research over the next 10 years.
By law, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine must have rigorous research and ethical guidelines. The NAS guidelines will be the model for those rules, says institute chairman Robert Klein.
An institute ethics panel, to be elected in May, also is expected to make extensive use of the academy’s suggestions, Klein says.
San Francisco has taken the lead in an intense four-city competition to become the institute’s headquarters – a prize that may turn the winner into an international center for stem cell research.