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Federal Stance On Stem Cell Research Revised

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Obama administration also moved today to fill in some of the blanks in the stem cell policy the White House announced last month. Guidelines from the National Institutes of Health spell out what kinds of research the government will and will not pay for. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, so far the administration's efforts to find a middle ground are only angering those on both sides of the issue.

JULIE ROVNER: What makes embryonic stem cell research controversial is that getting the cells requires the destruction of human embryos, but it's also considered a promising avenue of research for treating or curing a broad array of diseases. That's the part acting NIH director Raynard Kington stressed in his conference call with reporters today.

Dr. RAYNARD KINGTON (Acting Director, National Institutes of Health): This is a remarkable development that promises to speed the research that may one day fundamentally change how we approach health and disease.

ROVNER: Last month, President Obama rescinded former President Bush's policy that limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to cell lines already in existence as of August 2001. But he left it to the NIH to spell out the details. According to the draft, funding will be allowed only for cell lines derived from embryos left over in fertility clinics that are no longer needed for reproduction. That excludes a lot.

Dr. KINGTON: Research using human embryonic stem cells derived from other sources including somatic cell nuclear transfer…

ROVNER: That's science-speak for human cloning.

Dr. KINGTON: Parthenogenesis.

ROVNER: Which is a form of asexual reproduction…

Dr. KINGTON: And/or IVF embryos created specifically for research purposes is not allowed.

ROVNER: So how will these new draft guidelines go over? University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan Moreno worked on bioethics issues for the Obama transition team. He thinks NIH struck the right middle ground.

Professor JONATHAN MORENO (Medical Ethics, University of Pennsylvania): These guidelines are actually very moderate, and they track what we know about the public's view of these things.

ROVNER: Which, he says, is that funding should be limited to cell lines left over in fertility clinics, that embryos should be donated, never sold, and that there should be strict separation between decisions about reproduction and research. But it seems the guidelines so far have angered those on both sides of the debate. Scientist Irv Weissman heads Stanford's Stem Cell Research Institute. He says limiting research funding to leftover fertility clinic embryos means scientists can't create stem cell lines to study certain diseases.

Dr. IRV WEISSMAN (Head of Stem Cell Research Institute, Stanford): There will never be a line that you will know can get Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes or Lou Gehrig's disease due to genetic predilection.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, Douglas Johnson, of the National Right To Life Committee, says he's not convinced that the limits will stick.

Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (National Right To Life Committee): This is really just part of an incremental strategy intended to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes. And even today, the NIH officials assert that they can go much further whenever they choose to do so.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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