U scientist chairs health panel

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

U pediatrics professor Jeffrey Botkin will serve as chairman to a National Institute of Health federal panel that will review requests to use government funds to research embryonic stem cells, which would come from fertility clinics where couples used in vitro fertilization to conceive.

Botkin was selected because of his background in medical ethics8212;he’s also the associate vice president for research integrity and chief of the School of Medicine’s ethics and humanities division8212;and also because the U does not have an active embryonic stem cell research program, which eliminates any conflict of interest.

Under the Obama administration, leftover embryos from fertility clinics across the country can be used for stem cell research, provided the couple that produced the embryo consents after being fully informed about what is happening, Botkin said.

“Current estimates suggest there are hundreds of thousands of embryos that remain in the fertility clinics from couples who created them for reproductive purposes,” Botkin said in a statement. “Many of these couples have fulfilled their reproductive goals, meaning the leftover embryos will eventually be discarded.”

On March 9, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that lifted the stricter policy8212;put into place under former President George W. Bush8212;to allow the federal government to fund embryonic stem cell research. However, under both Obama and Bush, the use of federal funding to destroy embryos is not possible. The question is whether stem cells that non-federal sources create can obtain federal funds for research.

This panel was created after NIH Director Francis Collins announced that his agency was accepting requests for approval to use NIH funds to open new lines of human embryonic stem cells. The panel will discuss which lines will be permissible to use federal money to fund.

To open a new line of embryonic stem cells, scientists extract cells from the inner cell mass of early stage embryos. This process destroys the embryo, Botkin said, citing this reason as the beginning of the ethical debate.

In 1998, when scientists created the first successful human embryonic stem cells, it brought up a new venue for anti-abortion arguments. The opposing side says the embryos are not human life, but rather a clump of cells, said Lee Siegel, science news specialist at the U.

Stem cells could be used to treat a wide variety of disease because of the ability they have to develop into any kind of tissue within the human body. If scientists could coax the stem cells to develop into pancreas cells, there could be a possibility for doctors to use them as treatment for diabetics, Botkin said in a press release.

Many researchers are excited to move forward with stem cell research, though it remains unsure how many requests will be approved, Botkin said.

The panel members will first meet via teleconference at the end of this month to discuss the review process, Siegel said. They hope to have their first review meeting at NIH in Bethesda, Md.

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