A U.S. appeals court handed the Obama administration a victory on Friday over the controversial issue of human embryonic stem cells, ruling that federal funding of such research may go ahead.
The U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2-1 to overturn an earlier court ruling that stopped the National Institutes of Health from funding the research.
This appeals case does not settle the matter -- it merely allows the NIH to continue with the work while the main case goes through the courts. NIH has been doing so anyway, since the same appeals court made a tentative ruling last September.
“I am delighted and relieved to learn of the decision of the Court of Appeals," NIH Director Dr. Francis 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"
Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a strong supporter of embryonic-stem-cell research, said that the tide was turning.
"This ruling, based on the merits, protects the ability of scientists to continue to explore the promise of stem-cell research," Harkin said in a statement.
"My hope is that the legal wrangling ends here. Because, if the last few years have proven anything, it is that our fight to preserve funding for stem-cell research – one of the most promising areas of medical research available today – must continue. ”
Embryonic stem cells are the body’s master cells. Found in days-old embryos, they give rise to every other cell and tissue. Researchers are studying them to investigate how disease develops and are using some as transplants to treat diseases from Parkinson’s to cancer. Human embryonic stem cells developed by biopharmaceutical company Geron are being tested in people with fresh, severe spinal-cord injuries to determine if they can regenerate the damaged nerves.
Opponents say that a human embryo must be destroyed to get the stem cells, something they argue is unacceptable. The 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment, added to budget language every year, forbids the use of federal funds in research that destroys embryos.
When he was president, George W. Bush decided that the ban extended to human embryonic-stem-cell research and greatly limited the federal program. His decision forced labs across the country to set up fire walls between human embryonic-stem-cell research and other types of research.
As one of his first acts after he entered office, President Obama issued an executive order reversing this and allowing federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. He signed the order in a room full of applauding scientists.
The issue transcends traditional politics. Some of the strongest supporters of human embryonic-stem-cell research are conservatives, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who do not support abortion rights, for instance.
The Obama guidelines do not allow the use of federal dollars to create the stem cells but do allow researchers to work with them if they are made by another lab.
Dr. James Sherley of Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of Washington-based AVM Biotechnology, who both work with adult stem cells and who oppose the use of embryonic cells, filed the original suit, charging the guidelines would harm their work by increasing competition for limited federal funding.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction— this is what was vacated by Friday's appellate decision—that prohibited the National Institutes of Health from funding the research.
Sherley has vowed to pursue the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, although it is not clear if the Court would hear the case.
Opponents of using the embryonic cells say there are many alternatives, including the so-called adult cells that Sherley and other researchers work with, as well as lab-engineered cells called induced pluriponent stem cells or iPS cells.
"It is disappointing that the Appeals Court has decided to allow federal taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research in violation of federal law. As the dissenting opinion by Justice Henderson noted, the logic for the current decision is a case of 'linguistic jujitsu' rather than straightforward interpretation of the law," Dr. David Prentice of the anti-abortion Family Research Council said in a statement.
But Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that researchers need to be free to pursue all routes.
"This latest ruling normalizes the policy to the one originally decided by policymakers -- to allow embryonic-stem-cell research so long as the cells were not derived using government funds," Leshner said in a statement.
"And that matters because it is premature to decide in favor of or against a particular approach -- using cells derived from embryos or adult stem cells or cord-blood cells. The promise is so great we need to pursue all avenues to improve diagnoses and treatments."
This article appears in the April 29, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.