A panel of experts meeting at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, have said that it would be unethical and risky to use embryonic stem cell (ES cell) lines currently eligible for use by federally-funded researchers in the US for transplantation into human patients. At a meeting held last week, the panel, made up of 18 scientists, philosophers, ethicists and lawyers, said that because the federally approved stem cell lines were grown using feeder cells from mouse embryos, humans could become infected with mouse viruses.
In August 2001, President Bush announced a national policy limiting federally funded stem cell research to ES cell lines created on or before that date. Bush's policy allows federal funding for experiments involving stem cells already derived from embryos but not for research that would involve the creation and destruction of embryos. Since August 2001, scientists have developed techniques enabling them to grow ES cells without using mouse cells. Scientists believe that these types of ES cell are both medically promising and suitable for use in clinical trials, but the Bush policy will not allow federal funds to be used in such research.
The panel said that the policy means two things. First, that ES cell lines available for use in federally funded research are unethical for use in patients due to the risk. Secondly, the panel said, this limits tests or transplants using ES cell lines not grown with mouse feeder cells to scientists who are privately funded, meaning they would fall outside federal regulation designed to protect patients. Several scientists have called on the president to relax the policy, because there are currently only 11 cell lines available for use in research in the US, instead of more than 70 thought to be available when Bush announced the restrictions. The latest recommendations add to the tension between the president and scientists in the US.
The panel also recommended that a national stem cell bank be established in America. This should hold cells taken from a range of diverse donors, it said. Ruth Faden, a member of the panel and director of a bioethics institute at the Johns Hopkins University, said that because the stem cell bank the panel proposes would involve the creation and destruction of human embryos, it was 'very mindful of the implications'. The panel's proposals have been criticised by Richard Doerflinger of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Commenting on the recommendations, he said that the establishment of a stem cell bank amounts to the creation of 'embryo farms'.