Thursday December 2 12:42 AM ET
By Lisa Richwine
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. health agency on Wednesday unveiled proposals aimed at easing some ethical concerns over government-funded controversial research on stem cells from human embryos that scientists hope could yield treatments for a range of diseases.
The National Institutes of Health wants to hold researchers using public dollars to tight ethical standards and conduct strict oversight of stem cell studies, which scientists say hold great promise for medical advances but opponents call immoral.
Among its proposals, the NIH would require that cells come from embryos donated by people who had them conceived through in-vitro fertilization in the hopes of having a baby, and were not made just for research purposes.
Also, donors must give informed consent for handing over their unwanted embryos to researchers and must not be paid for donating them, the agency said. Private companies must harvest the cells.
In addition, the agency wants to prohibit federal funds for research that would use stem cells to create a human embryo, to clone a human or combine human stem cells with animal embryos.
Despite those restrictions, critics attacked the guidelines as providing for government-funded killing of human embryos.
``For the first time, human embryos would be deliberately killed under the sponsorship of the federal government,'' said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group.
The guidelines pertain to so-called ``pluripotent'' cells, which can develop into any kind of cell in the body.
``NIH understands and respects the ethical, legal and social issues relevant to human pluripotent stem cell research,'' the agency said in making its proposals.
``In light of these issues, the NIH plans to move forward in a careful and deliberate way prior to funding any research using stem cells.''
The NIH will take public comments for 60 days before issuing final guidelines.
Federal law prohibits research on human embryos, but Clinton administration officials have said they thought stem cell research would be legal if private firms cultivate the cells for studies.
But a U.S. senator said the new guidelines violate federal law. Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas called the research ''illegal, immoral and unnecessary.''
``The responsible thing to do is for government to serve human life in ways that do not destroy life,'' Brownback said.
Researchers hope that stem cells can grow into tissues or possibly complete organs for transplants. They think stem-cell research could help fight ailments such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, juvenile diabetes or heart disease.
A coalition of health groups that supports stem cell research welcomed the NIH proposals, saying the group recognizes the controversy and the need for restrictions.
The proposals ``will prompt the inclusion of the most scientists in the research, thus speeding the day when therapeutic applications are available,'' said Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research.