WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Wednesday touted new federal guidelines allowing scientists to conduct federally funded research on fertilized human eggs, saying they offer "potentially staggering benefits."
The guidelines for the research — vehemently opposed by anti-abortion groups — set out the criteria the National Institutes of Health will use to consider applications for federal grants to study embryonic stem cells, according to an advocate of the research who was briefed on the standards and the schedule for issuing them.
Experts believe the cells could be invaluable in treating many serious diseases, such as diabetes and Alzheimer's. But some oppose the research on grounds that to get the cells, scientists must destroy human embryos — fertilized eggs.
At an impromptu news conference, Clinton acknowledged the controversy surrounding this new scientific initiative.
But he said: "I think that if the public will look at first of all the potentially staggering benefits of this research, everything from birth defects to Parkinson's, certain kinds of cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injuries . . . it's a potential change for the future."
He said the prospect for helping Americans and people around the world "is breathtaking. These guidelines are not put out without a rigorous scientific research."
Clinton also said it would deal only "with those embryos that are collected in in-vitro fertilization."
"I think we cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives," he said, "to help people get up and walk . . . as long as we meet rigorous ethical standards, and I am convinced and (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Donna) Shalala is convinced that has been done."
The research involves what are called pluripotent stem cells, the foundation cells that give rise to all of the other cells, tissues and organs in the body.
Scientists believe it may be possible to use these cells to grow new organs to replace ailing hearts, treat brain disorders, to restore severed nerves in spinal injuries, and perhaps even cure diabetes by growing new insulin-producing cells.
Under the guidelines, federal research may be conducted only on cells taken from frozen embryos from fertility clinics — already destined to be discarded. Also, federal funds could not be used to destroy the embryos to obtain the cells — privately funded researchers will have to pass them on to federally supported scientists. Opponents criticize this separation as meaningless.
They outlaw payments to embryo donors and keep donors from specifying who should receive their embryo's stem cells. These provisions aim to discourage a market for stem cells and block a woman from creating embryos just to provide treatment for a sick relative.
The advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday evening that the rules would more strenuously ensure that donors understand that their embryos will not survive the extraction process and that the stem cells could be transplanted into patients.
Patient support groups applauded the new rules, which were first reported in Wednesday editions of The Washington Post.
Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research, told The Associated Press that the federal rules are the safest way to have to conduct research, "rather than being driven solely by commercial interests outside of public purview."
Opponents threatened to stop the effort.
"I don't think that they by law should be allowed to do this," Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., told the newspaper.
"We're talking about dismembering a living being, according to our interpretation," said Dickey, who has introduced legislation banning the destruction of human embryos.
Scientists dispute his interpretation, saying the retrieval is conducted when an embryo is only a week old, and is still a microscopic ball of identical cells.
Under the new rules, applications for research would have to pass a committee of scientists and ethicists before being forwarded to an NIH scientific review committee, said the advocate.
That review committee is scheduled to have its next meeting in January, so the first awards would not be awarded until late in 2001, at the earliest — assuming that Congress or the next administration does not interfere.
Perry said that there's bipartisan support for pursuing the benefits of the research, while addressing the legal, ethical and moral issues, which he said the rules cover.
"The best way to do that is to have the federal government get behind an advance such as the culturing of human stem cells and to allow the broadest number of scientists to participate and furthering the insight," he said. "It would be bad public policy to wall off by congressional action any avenue that science might find cure the patient's needs."
On the Net: National Institutes of Health: www.nih.gov