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Panel to Urge Ending Ban on Funding Human Embryo Studies : Biomedicine: Group is expected to recommend that federal agency allow research on surplus embryos. Its deliberations have been bitterly opposed.

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

A federal panel is preparing to recommend that the National Institutes of Health--the world’s largest biomedical research organization--end a 20-year moratorium on publicly funded research on human embryos created in laboratories.

The 19 policy-makers, legal experts and medical specialists on the NIH advisory panel are not expected to make their findings public until next month. But interviews with several panel members and a report in the journal Science, released today, indicate the group is prepared to lower the barriers to such research for the first time in a generation, signaling a new turn in one of medicine’s most bitter controversies.

Despite a de facto ban on federal funding, researchers in the United States conduct hundreds of human embryo experiments every year with no public control or regulation. The work is carried out at many of the hundreds of U.S. infertility clinics with embryos created through in-vitro fertilization. Researchers experiment with spare embryos created during the course of infertility treatments or with embryos that are later implanted in the hope they will develop into healthy children.

The experiments include efforts to improve an infertile couple’s ability to conceive a child or to ensure the offspring’s genetic health. So little is known about the biochemistry and genetics of early human development that for most purposes every human embryo created in the laboratory is an experiment.

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“We are talking about creating life,” said Patricia A. King, a Georgetown University law professor who is the panel’s policy chairwoman. “There is a fine balance between doing something that has scientific merit and is also sensitive to the different perspectives and fears about the beginning of human life. There are concerns about going too far in the name of science.”

NIH Director Harold Varmus appointed the panel in January to address the moral and ethical issues arising from research using human embryos in laboratory experiments. The move stemmed in part from an international furor over a team of George Washington University researchers who asserted they had cloned human embryos.

The panel’s meetings stirred such strong feelings that NIH was obliged to hire security guards to monitor its most recent session. The panelists, who have received hate mail and numerous threats, are also being sued by an anti-abortion group in Pittsburgh intent on halting their deliberations. U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), in a letter signed by 35 members of Congress, questioned whether NIH even has the authority to revise the federal research guidelines.

The federal government has not funded any research using human embryos since 1973, when a Nashville University embryologist triggered a political firestorm over the propriety of such experiments by proposing that NIH fund a study investigating the health of human embryos created in the laboratory.

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The panel is expected to recommend that NIH permit research on surplus embryos created during the course of infertility treatments up to their 14th day of development.

“We fully expect that some of the research will be directed toward treating infertility and that some of these embryos would be implanted,” said panel member Thomas Murray, an expert at Case Western Reserve University on medical ethics. “We would have very strict precautions so that there is a minimum risk.

“When you are talking about implanting an embryo in the hope it will develop into a child, you have the same moral considerations you have when you ask a parent to consent to research on their child,” he said.

The panel is also expected to endorse a new technique called blastomere biopsy, in which a single cell is extracted from a laboratory-created embryo and used to diagnose inherited diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

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