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U.S. To Fund Controversial Experiments On Stem Cells

By Aaron Zitner

The federal government announced Wednesday that for the first time it will fund medical research using human embryo cells, touching off a bitter debate between anti-abortion groups and patients with diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. President Clinton said the research had “breathtaking” promise and added: “I think we cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives.”

Research opponents, who believe it is immoral to use embryos as laboratory materials, vowed to block the administration in Congress or the courts.

But even if opponents succeed, more ethical battles are on the horizon, people on both sides of the debate say. Advances in genetics and embryology are raising thorny questions as never before about the proper treatment of early human life.

Already, one company has aimed to cure disease by merging human cells with cow cells, creating a hybrid that some people find repugnant.

And soon, parents will be able to screen embryos for a wide variety of traits -- not only disease, but hair color and height -- bringing them new options to choose their own children.

“You don’t need a crystal ball to see the questions that are going to come up in the next five years,” said Glenn McGee, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The National Institutes of Health on Wednesday invited scientists to apply for the first-ever federal grants for research using embryo stem cells. These cells, which develop when the embryo is only a few days old, have the power to grow into almost any tissue or cell in the body. Scientists hope to grow them into new brain cells for Alzheimer’s patients, new pancreas cells for diabetics, nerve cells for spinal cord injury victims and the like.

Embryo stem cells were first isolated two years ago, and some scientists in the private sector already have been working with them. Now, the field could get a major boost as more scientists apply for funding from the NIH, the largest supporter of U.S. medical research. They would have to follow a set of ethics guidelines that the agency released Wednesday after more than a year of internal review.

However, advances in research are likely to raise new challenges to the NIH rules -- and to other current restrictions on embryo research. For example, the NIH said it will only fund work using embryos created by couples during the course of fertility treatments, embryos that were not used.

But eventually, scientists will want to work with embryos they create in their own labs using genetic material from their patients, something now barred by the new NIH rules. The stem cells from those embryos could be transplanted back into a patient’s body with a lowered risk of rejection, said Dr. Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate from Stanford University.

While producing these embryos might help patients, it raises alarm bells even beyond the anti-abortion community. “If we deliberately produce embryos for utilitarian purposes, then there’s really almost no boundary beyond that,” said Stuart Newman, a developmental biologist from Valhalla, N.Y. Newman worries that producing embryos for medical treatments might lead to the commercialization of human life.