Under debate. Embryonic stem cells, handled here in a lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, may help cure several diseases.

NIH Sees "Enormous Promise" in Stem Cells

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Embryonic stem cells have great potential for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, and Alzheimer's, according to a review by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released today. The report puts more pressure on President George W. Bush, who has to decide whether to allow federal funding of the research. Stem cell supporters today took heart after Republican Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, widely considered a barometer for President Bush's views on health, voiced qualified support for embryonic stem cell research during a Senate hearing.

The NIH report describes a field that is full of potential but still short on concrete results. It carefully outlines the differences among results in stem cells derived from adults, fetal tissue, or embryos, reviewing both published and unpublished work. At this point, it says, only embryonic stem cells appear to have the capacity to differentiate into almost any kind of body cell. But all types of stem cells "hold enormous promise for new approaches to tissue and organ repair," says the report, compiled by the NIH office of public policy under the direction of Lana Skirboll. The report does not take a position on whether the federal government should fund work with embryonic stem cells--a question President Bush is still trying to resolve.

On Monday, House majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) announced that he opposes "farming or harvesting embryonic stem cells." But today, Frist, an organ transplant surgeon who opposes abortion, revealed that he supports the research, albeit with restrictions similar to those spelled out by the Clinton Administration for the National Institutes of Health (Science, 22 January 1999, p. 465).

Frist, who made his announcement at a Senate hearing run by two ardent supporters of embryonic stem cell research--Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA)--recommended that there be a continued ban on federal funding for deriving stem cells from human embryos. He also argued that the government should limit the number of cell lines used by scientists. Currently, there are fewer than a dozen embryonic cell lines available; scientists have said they anticipate needing at least 100.