The National Institutes of Health (NIH) released on August 23 its long-awaited guidelines that, for the first time, will allow federal funding for research using stem cells derived from human embryos and fetal tissue; these cells are widely believed to hold promise in the treatment of diabetes, spinal cord injury and neurological disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.The guidelines closely follow the parameters of the legal opinion provided by the Department of Health and Human Services in December 1999, which reasoned that although current federal law restricts the use of public funds for human embryo research, it does not prohibit stem cell research "because such cells are not human embryos." The guidelines prescribe the documentation and assurances scientists must submit to NIH for federal grant money to study stem cells derived from both human embryos and fetal tissue. For research using embryonic stem cells, the guidelines stipulate that federal funding may not be used for the destruction of human embryos (the inevitable end-product of obtaining the cells), meaning that privately funded researchers will have to provide the useful cells. Moreover, the guidelines allow the use only of cells derived from excess frozen embryos that had been created for fertility treatments.
Meanwhile, the Senate has under consideration legislation introduced by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) in January 2000 to eliminate altogether the ban on the use of public funds for human embryo research. If passed, the measure would allow scientists to use federal funds to derive stem cells from human embryos for research. Groups representing Parkinson's disease and diabetes patients testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education in September about the need for such funding. A vote on the issue in the Senate has been promised before Congress adjourns in October, but no similar action is anticipated in the House.