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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK


US human embryo research backed

Research using human embryos could lead to "spare parts" being grown

The US government should fund research on human embryos, says an ethics panel appointed by President Bill Clinton.

A draft copy of the panel's report, seen by the Washington Post newspaper, concludes that the medical benefits of such research now outweigh the moral cost of destroying embryos.

According to the paper, the US National Bioethics Advisory Commission believes it is potentially unfair to millions of patients for Congress to continue its 4-year-old funding ban.

"These are very difficult judgments to make, but it's a balancing act," said Harold Shapiro, chairman of the bioethics commission and president of Princeton University in the Post.

"We have moral obligations to the future health and welfare of people, and we need to balance these with, at the very least, the symbolic moral obligation we have to the embryo."

"Spare" embryos

The commission will recommend that unwanted embryos produced after infertility treatment can be donated by the parents for scientific research.

[ image: Stem cell research is currently banned in the US]
Stem cell research is currently banned in the US
Recent research has shown that cells from human embryos have enormous potential to treat human illnesses. The stem cells have the capability to develop into any specific type of cell.

For example, many scientists expect that brain cells could be harvested to replace those lost to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. They also anticipate the production of muscle tissue and possibly whole organs.

Progress tips balance

The progress being made in turning theoretical possibilities into practical treatments is one of the reasons the Commission believes the balance has tipped in favour of allowing government funding for embryo research.

Two of the most significant advances in this field were made in American laboratories but funded by private companies. Eric Meslin, the Commission's Executive Director, told the Post the US public believe federal money would help ensure that the nation's health interests were promoted, rather than the profits of private companies.

Acceptance of the 17-member Commission's recommendations is far from guaranteed, however. Vociferous opponents exist in Congress, some of them prominent anti-abortion activists.

NIH backs stem cell research

Earlier this year, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) called for government-funded research on laboratory-grown human embryo cells, though not on human embryos themselves. The NIH is a primary source of US government funding for medical research.

Last month, Richard Doerflinger of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops told the Commission: "The proposed NIH policy is seriously flawed on legal and scientific as well as moral grounds. It has no more respect for law than it does for vulnerable human life."

Last year, the UK Government was recommended to allow the cloning of early-stage human embryos for research into making transplant parts or for the treatment of disease. The proposal came in a joint report from the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

But the report advised the government to introduce legislation explicitly banning human reproductive cloning. This would effectively separate the issue of reproductive whole-body cloning from "therapeutic cloning" as part of the search for new medical treatments.

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