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Fetal-cell transplants put on hold.

Fetal-cell transplants put on hold

The U.S. government has decided to prohibit, at least temporarily, any federally funded cell transplant experiments that call for the use of tissues from intentionally aborted human fetuses. The decision comes as scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are preparing to perform the first U.S. experimental transplant of human fetal cells into the brain of an adult with Parkinson's disease.

The moratorium is called for in a letter from Robert E. Windom, assistant secretary of health, to James B. Wyngaarden, head of the NIH. According to a spokesman for Windom, the letter is in response to a proposal by NIH researchers to perform the experimental therapy.

"The concern was that there might be some legal and ethical issues that should be looked at," the spokesman told SCIENCE NEWS. He says a commission will be appointed to examine the issues and come up with a policy.

Scientists' reactions to the government move were mixed. Several researchers voiced concern that the decision represents an inappropriate imposition of the conservative administration's politics on the direction of medical research. Anti-abortion groups object to the experimental use of fetal cells, claiming that it desecrates the fetus and encourages abortion.

Other researchers and biomedical ethicists praised the government action, saying open discussion of the controversial research is long overdue.

"There's no doubt that the topic is fraught with terrifyingly difficiult ethical problems, and I'm all for committees and groups who want to discuss and debate these matters," says Arthur Caplan, head of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Among the issues in need of discussion, he says, are the impact of fetal-cell research on abortion, questions of consent and control of fetal tissues, issues of payment and questions of who may get to do these experiments and for what purposes.

"I think some people hoped that if we didn't talk about it it would go away," says Fred Gage, a research neurologist at the University of California at San Diego. "The ban is temporary. I think it's going to result in what should have happened before: a careful evaluation of the situation."

The government decision applies only to experiments involving human fetal-cell transplants, and not to other experiments that use human fetal cells. Animal studies suggest such transplants may be useful for a variety of illnesses - most notably Prkinson's disease - but conclusive results of the first human trials in Sweden. Mexico and England have yet to be reported.

It's possible, some researchers warn, that if the government is slow to approve the procedure, private institutions without NIH funding may move ahead with their own experiments.

"A moratorium on federal support for these studies may means instead that they will simply be done in foreign countries which do not have the same resources and expertise, or they may be done less adequately with private funding in the United States," says D. Eugene Redmond Jr., director of the neurobehavior laboratory at Yale University School of Medicine, where fetal-cell transplants are in the planning stages.
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Author:Weiss, Rick
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 23, 1988
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