WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health today is expected to unveil new rules that will allow it to fund controversial but promising research using human embryos, a move that is sure to draw protests and a possible lawsuit from anti-abortion groups and their allies in Congress.
Many scientists and patient advocacy groups say that the research, which uses "stem cells" from embryos, is the most promising avenue to possible cures for diabetes, spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and a variety of other illnesses.
But embryos are destroyed in the course of the research, and some religious groups that support abortion rights have questioned whether the work is a proper use of human embryos.
The NIH has been working on the rules for more than a year and had released an earlier version for public comment. A Capitol Hill aide and a lobbyist who follow the NIH's work closely said that they expected release of the final version today.
Under the expected guidelines, many of the stem cells would come from patients who created more embryos during fertility treatments than were ultimately used. This commonly happens when couples seek medical assistance in conceiving a child and then freeze their spare embryos or have them destroyed.
In part, the NIH guidelines are aimed at making sure that researchers do not pressure fertility patients to donate embryos through payments or other inducements, or through coercion. In addition, fertility patients would be barred from specifying who can receive the benefits of the stem cells from their embryos, the NIH had said in earlier versions of the proposals.
Opponents of the research, including Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), have vowed to challenge the NIH in court.
In 1996, Congress barred the agency from funding research in which embryos are destroyed. But the NIH maintains that the law only bars it from paying for the work of dissecting embryos to obtain the stem cells and that it can legally support research that uses stem cells obtained using private funds.
The NIH guidelines could become a heated issue in the presidential campaign.
Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, supports stem cell research, while his GOP opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, opposes it.