President Shapiro joins colleagues in supporting stem cell research

March 27, 2001, 5:26 p.m.

Harold T. Shapiro joined 111 other college and university leaders Monday in urging the Bush administration to allow continued federal funding of stem cell research under stringent guidelines developed last year.

Calling the discovery of human embryonic stem cells "one of the most promising biomedical developments in recent years," the group asserted that a ban on federal funding would stifle the development of potential cures and treatment for such disorders as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, diabetes, spinal cord injury and heart disease.

Embryonic stem cells are a unique type of cell present only at the earliest stages of life and capable of producing any of the many specialized tissue and organ cells of the body. Religious and other groups have opposed research involving these cells because an embryo must be destroyed to obtain them.

President Bush has ordered a review of government policies governing stem cell research, including guidelines recommended last year by the National Institutes of Health.

"We believe that the stringent guidelines that NIH developed last year provide the appropriate federal oversight and standards that will allow this research to flourish in an ethically rigorous manner," the university leaders wrote.

President Shapiro, as chair of the presidentially appointed National Bioethics Advisory Commission, has had a longstanding interest in stem cell research and its ethical implications. Under Shapiro's leadership, the commission issued a report in September 1999 concluding that "human stem cell research under federal sponsorship is important, but only if it is conducted in an ethically responsible manner." As a result, the commission recommended that federal agencies be permitted to fund research that created or used human embryonic stem cells, provided the source of these cells was either excess embryos left over from fertility treatments or aborted fetal tissue.

The commission found there is "substantial agreement among individuals with diverse perspectives that although the human embryo and fetus deserve respect as forms of human life, the scientific and clinical benefits of stem cell research should not be foregone."

The signers of Monday's letter included the presidents of the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. The letter was sent to Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.