Thirteen embryonic stem cell lines were approved Wednesday for federally-funded research with assurance from the director of the National Institutes for Health that research on them is ethical and does not violate principles on human dignity and sanctity of life.
"Let me be clear, these are embryos that would have been otherwise discarded as part of in-vitro fertilization clinic activities," Dr. Francis Collins noted during an appearance Wednesday on CNN.
The NIH director also noted that his federal agency had conducted a "very careful" review of the lines based on the conditions that were set forth in guidelines issued earlier this year and further pointed out that it was former President Bush who first approved the use of stem cell lines for federal researchers to work with.
Notably, however, taxpayer-funded stem cell research under the Bush administration was limited to about 21 embryonic stem cell lines – only those already in existence as of August 2001.
Since then, hundreds of "better lines" have come out, such as the 13 made available Wednesday.
The NIH's announcement marked the first time new lines were made available since President Obama lifted the restriction set by Bush that made research on lines created after August 9, 2001, ineligible for federal funding.
According to Collins, another 96 embryonic stem cell lines are currently undergoing NIH review, and 20 or more could get a decision by Friday. Researchers have also notified the NIH that they may apply for approval of another 250 stem cell lines.
Though embryonic stem cells have been highly touted for their potential to lead to breakthroughs in curing diseases such as Parkinson's, cancer, and paralysis, among others, critics of embryonic stem cell research say lifting the ban on their federal funding could open the door to future abuses and paste "a veneer of 'ethics'" on unethical experiments.
Critics also point out that embryonic stem cell research has yielded no cures to date. Adult stem cells and neonatal stem cells, meanwhile, have been used in successfully treating over 100 diseases without controversies and have been hailed by some as having many superior qualities to embryonic stem cells.
In his appearance on CNN, Collins acknowledged the lack of progress in the relatively new field but noted that it's partly because of the limits that have been placed on the research.
"We really don't know what the potential is here," he reported. "And I want to be clear that we should be careful not to overstate the likelihood that this approach is going to result in breakthroughs in those diseases. But it is certainly an exciting new pathway."
Despite the uncertainty, Collins made clear that he believes that it's far more beneficial to utilize what would otherwise be discarded.
"The embryos are being created anyway with a benevolent purpose to try to give a childless couple a chance to have a baby. It does seems to me, as a believer, as a Christian, that it's more ethically acceptable – as long as the consent process was carefully followed and it's clear that no payment was involved, there was not coercion involved. It was the free gift of the donors to make this available for research. That seems to me to measure up to ethical standards that are quite defensible from whatever your worldview," he stated.
In continuing, Collins said: "The question that many ethicists have posed and people both of faith and people who come at it from a different perspective have concluded that in fact, ethically, isn't it more justifiable if those embryos that have been created to use them for a purpose that might help someone with a disease as opposed to simply discarding them?
"It seems to me with that kind of argument, even those who feel strongly about the sanctity of life, when asked to balance the pros and cons of discarding versus trying to do something useful to honor that particular source of human material would say 'Maybe we're better off doing what we've done,'" he added.
With Wednesday's announcement, researchers who were awarded $21 million in stem cell research grants earlier this year can start using the approved lines immediately. Millions more in stem cell money, meanwhile, is due out later this winter.