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Appeals Court Overturns Stem Cell Research Injunction

Legal: Appeals court says federal funding may continue for work involving human embryonic stem cells while lower-court case proceeds

by Britt E. Erickson
May 2, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 19

The National Institutes of Health can continue funding research involving human embryonic stem cells until a lawsuit about stem cell research is settled, a federal appeals court ruled on April 29. The 2-1 ruling reverses a lower-court decision that barred such funding while the litigation proceeds (C&EN, Aug. 30, 2011, page 4).

The lawsuit was filed by two researchers who claim that NIH's stem cell policy violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law that prohibits federal funding of any research that destroys human embryos. NIH counters that the agency funds research that uses stem cells that were previously derived from human embryos.

In its long-awaited ruling, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with NIH and the Obama Administration, saying that the law "does not extend to past actions." The court also agreed with NIH that prohibiting federal funding would be devastating to embryonic stem cell research.

The ruling was viewed as a victory by NIH and the White House. "I am delighted and relieved to learn of the decision of the Court of Appeals," NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in a statement. "This is a momentous day--not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research."

Scientists are still waiting for a ruling in the underlying lower court case, which could once again freeze federal funding for stem cell research. But last week's ruling by the appeals court suggests that the plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their case, observers predict.

Congress's leading advocate for stem cell research, Rep. Diana L. DeGette (D-Colo.), was pleased with the decision, saying it "offered a measure of stability and continuity to the scores of researchers across America who have been whiplashed by this court case."

Nonetheless, DeGette pledged to continue her efforts to codify federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. "Embryonic stem cells hold too much promise for too many Americans for us to leave their funding up to the political gamesmanship of Washington. We have already lost valuable time," she said.



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