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NIH official says stem cell policy is delaying cures

WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health official overseeing the implementation of President Bush's embryonic stem cell policy has suggested that the controversial program is delaying cures, an unusually blunt assessment for an executive branch official.

In prepared Senate testimony, Story Landis, director of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and interim chair of the agency's stem cell task force, closely mirrored previous testimony from other NIH officials, who have for years been careful not to criticize the Bush policy directly, even though that policy has infuriated many scientists for the limits it places on embryo cell work.

But under questioning Friday, Landis spoke more plainly.

When Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked her how the policy was affecting medical research, she said: "We are missing out on possible breakthroughs." The ability to work on newly derived stem cell colonies -- precluded from federal funding under the Bush plan -- "would be incredibly important," she added.

Landis also declared that "science works best when scientists can pursue all avenues of research. If the cure for Parkinson's disease or juvenile diabetes lay behind one of four doors, wouldn't you want the option to open all four doors at once instead of one door?"

Those and related comments left at least some at the hearing wondering whether a Democratic majority in Congress had emboldened NIH. But NIH spokesman John Burklow denied the agency was getting uppity. Landis's testimony "reflects her scientific opinion," he said.

The House this month passed a bill that would loosen Bush's restrictions, and the Senate is poised to do so in February. Bush has promised to veto the bill.

In a separate development, a controversy has arisen over proposals to boost the supply of stem cells by paying women who undergo fertility treatments to donate their unused eggs.

The approach is one of several new efforts to boost the supply of human eggs needed for research.

Donated eggs are used in a process called therapeutic cloning, which creates stem cells genetically matched to an individual. They could eventually be used to create tissues to treat illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease, providing transplant material that's genetically matched to the patient. Therapeutic cloning may also help scientists develop better drug treatments.

It's not clear how many eggs scientists need for this research, but providing them is a significant undertaking for donors.

A woman can spend 40 to 56 hours in medical offices, being interviewed, counseled, and subjected to a surgical procedure, under sedation, that retrieves eggs from her body. Before that procedure, she takes hormone injections daily for more than a week to stimulate egg development.

Women donate thousands of eggs in the United States every year to help other women have babies. They are paid. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine doesn't recommend a figure but says $5,000 or more requires some justification and that $10,000 is too much.

Massachusetts law permits human egg donors to be paid only for their expenses. That is consistent with the guidelines of a committee of the National Research Council, which advises the federal government.

The compensation question has split American feminists and advocates for reproductive health and rights, said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society.

One side says offering money beyond reimbursement risks exploiting disadvantaged women , while the other side calls that stance paternalistic, she said.

Darnovsky said her center has no position on paying women to provide eggs for fertility clinics, but holds that if women give eggs for stem cell research, they should only be reimbursed for expenses .

Ethicist Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University believes that paying compensation could exploit some women. Women who give eggs to fertility clinics are doing it for the money, she said, and as a society, "we don't . . . want the bodies of the poor used for the needs of the wealthy." Others believe women should be paid. Participants in other kinds of biomedical research are compensated, for their time and inconvenience, said Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. There are ways to guard against exploitation of vulnerable women, she said. One would be for local boards that oversee research to make sure that donors are recruited from a wide variety of groups.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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