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Research Integrity

Victory For Stem Cell Research

Policy: Court affirms legality of federally funded research on human embryonic stem cells

by Britt E. Erickson
September 3, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 36

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Credit: Jeff Miller/U Wisconsin, Madison
Human embryonic stem cell research, such as that shown here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, can be federally funded, an appeals court ruled last week.
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Credit: Jeff Miller/U Wisconsin, Madison
Human embryonic stem cell research, such as that shown here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, can be federally funded, an appeals court ruled last week.

In a victory for the National Institutes of Health, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling that the federal government can legally fund research on human embryonic stem cells.

Two scientists who work with adult stem cells sued NIH in 2009. They claimed that an obscure law, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, prohibits federal funding of research that destroys human embryos, which happens when harvesting human embryonic stem cells.

The case temporarily halted government-funded research on human embryonic stem cells in 2010 when a lower court issued an injunction. The federal appeals court lifted the injunction that same year, ruling that the law “does not extend to past actions.” The lower court subsequently dismissed the case, but the plaintiffs appealed.

In the Aug. 24 ruling, Chief Judge David B. Sentelle of the federal appeals court noted that conducting research on human embryonic stem cells is not the same as harvesting stem cells. “We will not revisit the issue,” he wrote in an opinion document for the court.

NIH Director Francis S. Collins called the ruling “another step in the right direction,” adding that it affirms NIH’s commitment to patients afflicted with diseases that may become treatable with the fruits of stem cell research.

Although the plaintiffs have few options left, they could seek a review of the case by the Supreme Court. “Americans should not be forced to pay for experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments, and violate federal law,” Steven H. Aden, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research continue to watch the situation closely. “Funding for this promising field of research continues to hang on a thread,” says Bernard Siegel, spokesman for the Stem Cell Action Coalition, a group of 75 nonprofit organizations that advocate for human embryonic stem cell research. “Proponents of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research need to remain vigilant,” he notes.

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