House Targets Embryo Researcher

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Congress has launched an investigation into controversial human embryo studies conducted by Mark Hughes, a molecular geneticist who once worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), chair of the House Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, wrote to Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on 6 March saying that he is looking into how Hughes "violated a ban on federal funding of human embryo research." In a three-page letter, Barton demanded that "all documents from NIH and HHS" relating to the Hughes case be delivered to the subcommittee offices by 17 March. There are no plans as yet for a hearing.

In 1994, NIH recruited Hughes from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to work on his specialty--diagnosing mutations in human DNA. Hughes initially set up a lab on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, alongside other distinguished intramural scientists. Eventually, he moved to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Hughes was not a member of the NIH intramural staff but received funding through an NIH contract with Georgetown.

Hughes is internationally known as an expert in testing for genetic defects in human embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF). He has routinely provided test results to parents before an embryo is implanted in the womb. According to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, NIH administrators were surprised to discover last year that Hughes continued this IVF-related research after NIH officials had told him to stop. In October 1996--after Congress enacted a ban on human embryo research--NIH quietly cut off Hughes's funding. The decision became public in January. The Tribune also reported that some of Hughes's genetic testing--including a case in which tests failed to discover that an embryo had a genetic defect that leads to cystic fibrosis--was done at the NIH-funded lab.

Jeffrey Trent, an official at the National Human Genome Research Institute who monitored the NIH's inquiry into this case, says the Tribune's report is "accurate." Hughes declined to be quoted, but said that NIH officials were fully aware of the nature of his research.