OTTAWA--Canadian scientists have gotten the green light to proceed with human embryonic stem (ES) cell research. Researchers may derive new lines of stem cells from embryos left over from fertility treatments or tissue from aborted fetuses under guidelines announced Monday by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). (Such derivation is prohibited for publicly funded researchers in the United States.) But the guidelines, issued in draft form last spring (Science, 6 April 2001, p. 31), prohibit the creation of embryos for research purposes or for so-called therapeutic cloning.
The guidelines "balance the safety and ethical issues of concern to Canadians with research and clinical opportunities and the desire of Canadians to proceed with the use of stem cells to treat disease," says CIHR president Alan Bernstein. A new committee will review research proposals, and all new cell lines generated using CIHR funds will be listed at an electronic registry and will be available to all researchers. Bernstein says he does not see CIHR's move as a substitute for legislation: "What we're doing today is putting guidelines in place where there's been a vacuum. ... [They] will be replaced if and when legislation comes in."
Canadian researchers and private disease-fighting groups hailed the new guidelines, which lift a voluntary moratorium for the past decade on human ES cell research. These new rules also are consistent with draft legislation before Parliament. But they have drawn the ire of some pro-life members of the governing Liberal party, who accuse Bernstein of trying to circumvent the parliamentary process.
Canadian stem cell scientists are pleased that the government has set down a clear path. "A lot of scientists have been waiting to hear what's going on," says Mick Bhatia of the John P. Robarts Institute in London, Ontario, who is gearing up to culture hematopoietic cells from ES cell lines acquired from WiCell in Wisconsin. Michael Rudnicki of the University of Ottawa points out that Canadian researchers have had plenty of time to think about how to pursue their aims and have a well-organized infrastructure--including a research network called StemNet and centralized fertility clinics with approved informed-consent procedures to supply embryos.