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Judge Halts Stem Cell Research

Injunction: Federal funding for all human embryonic stem cell research must cease

by Britt E. Erickson
August 30, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 35

Credit: Jeff Miller/U of Wisconsin, Madison
Stem cell research, such as that shown here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, may grind to a halt after last week’s court ruling.
Credit: Jeff Miller/U of Wisconsin, Madison
Stem cell research, such as that shown here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, may grind to a halt after last week’s court ruling.

A federal court has temporarily blocked the National Institutes of Health from funding human embryonic stem cell research. In an Aug. 23 ruling that took many scientists by surprise, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia put NIH’s current stem cell policy on hold until a lawsuit over it is settled.

The lawsuit was filed a year ago by Christian groups, which claim that NIH’s stem cell policy violates a law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. That law prohibits the use of federal funds for research that destroys human embryos.

The ruling is expected to have a dramatic impact on human embryonic stem cell research. Scientists who have already received NIH funding for such research can continue to use the money. But they won’t get additional funding when their project comes up for annual review if the situation is not resolved, NIH Director Francis S. Collins explained at an Aug. 24 briefing.

Dozens of grant applications, many of which have already received high scores during peer review, have been pulled from consideration for NIH funding because of the ruling, Collins said. The agency has also called off a review of several human embryonic stem cell lines for addition to the NIH registry.

“This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research, just at the time when we were really gaining momentum,” Collins stressed. “Researchers will likely grow discouraged and move on to other countries or other fields of research.”

Many in the research community also condemn the ruling. “The decision is a deplorable brake on all stem cell research,” says Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Under this decision, even research using the human embryonic stem cell lines approved by President George W. Bush will be halted.”

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who has repeatedly introduced legislation in the House of Representatives with Michael Castle (R-Del.) that would expand federal funding for stem cell research, says the “ruling underscores why we must pass commonsense embryonic stem cell research legislation.” Such legislation was vetoed twice by Bush, who had put restrictions on federal funding for such work. Those restrictions were lifted in March 2009 when President Barack Obama signed an executive order opening federal funding in this area.

Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research, however, welcome the ruling. “The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments—prohibited by federal law—that destroy human life,” Steven H. Aden, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), said in a statement. ADF is cocounsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the injunction.

The lawsuit has a complicated history. It was dismissed in October 2009 after a judge ruled that the plaintiffs had no standing. But two of the plaintiffs—James L. Sherley, a researcher at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Theresa Deisher, director of research and development at AVM Biotechnology, a Seattle-based firm—appealed the case. They argued that federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research limits federal dollars for adult stem cell research. Both researchers work with adult stem cells.

The court of appeals reversed the dismissal in June and sent the case back to the district court to consider the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction while the lawsuit proceeds.

The Department of Justice is reviewing the ruling with respect to the injunction and says the Administration plans to appeal it.


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