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NIH to Screen Controversial Stem Cell Grants

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is moving ahead slowly on its pledge to fund controversial research on human embryonic stem cells. Yesterday, NIH chiefs unveiled a scheme in which an outside group would review grant proposals for compliance with criteria set by Congress for the protection of embryos. The scheme essentially would block funding of research that involves direct use of embryos or aborted fetuses, but permit research on stem cells derived from these sources.

NIH director Harold Varmus introduced draft guidelines that would establish such a process to a 13-member advisory panel meeting. The panel, chaired by molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman of Princeton University and Ezra Davidson, associate dean of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, made no immediate recommendations. However, some observers were concerned about the complexity of the process. For example, after watching the morning's proceedings, stem cell researcher John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said that he might opt out of the federal system and rely strictly on private funding.

The NIH guidelines would rely on a legalistic set of definitions designed to avoid the use of human embryos. NIH's assistant director for extramural research Wendy Baldwin recommended adding another restriction: Researchers, she said, should be asked to certify that the stem cells they use were acquired from providers who obtained proper consent from embryo donors. That could be tricky, because embryos typically come from clients of private fertility clinics, which are not covered by federal rules. Baldwin envisions an independent group of scientists and ethicists who would regularly review stem cell research proposals.

Once the Davidson-Tilghman panel finishes its work, NIH will gather public comment for 60 days, then seek advice from another high-level panel on how to proceed. It could be many months before Varmus takes action, and much longer before NIH actually considers funding human embryonic stem cell research.