Updated at 2:42 p.m.
Stem cell research advocates have set their sights on a legislative fix to get stem cell research moving again after U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last week granted a temporary injunction against federal funds for the practice.
Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations subcommittee aides say they are looking at many options to lift the funding freeze, including modifying the language of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, a rider that has been attached to Labor-HHS spending bills since 1995 to prohibit the use of federal funds for research that destroys human embryos.
"Simply codifying President Obama's Executive Order wouldn't do the trick," said the aide, referring to the president's March 2009 order that gave HHS the authority to conduct "responsible, scientifically worthy" human stem cell research, including research on human embryos, to the extent permitted by law.
"There are discussions about modifying the Dickey-Wicker language to get at the heart of the problem," the aide said.
The Labor-HHS subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on the stem cell decision for Sept. 16, and aides say they expect to hear from scientists whose research has been stopped as a result of the injunction.
Judge Lamberth found that federal regulations split the definition of "research" in a way the statute did not intend. Advocates for stem cell research argued that federal guidelines satisfied the law because government money only funded stem cell research after stem cells had been extracted from an embryo. But Lamberth said the statute applied to all research that destroys an embryo, not just a "piece of research."
"Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo... Congress could have written the statute that way," wrote Lamberth in his decision.
According to American Health Lawyers Association CEO Peter Leibold, a new version of the Dickey-Wicker amendment would have to be very specific to satisfy the judge's concerns.
"It all comes down to if Congress intended to prevent research that requires the destruction of embryos," said Leibold. "Unless it is reversed on appeal, Congress is going to have to change the language and narrow the subject of research to be focused on something short of the destruction of embryos."
UCLA law professor and stem cell expert Russell Korobkin said the challenge will not be writing new language, but finding the political will to pass a bill in the run-up to the midterm elections.
"Congress can just overrule the judge," said Korobkin, "The legal side is easy. This will come down to a question of politics."
Korobkin noted that Congress passed legislation similar to the Obama executive order during the George W. Bush administration with fewer Democrats in office than there are now. The earlier legislation was vetoed by President Bush.
Congressional action cannot come soon enough for many scientists. Jennifer Poulakidas of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group that supports stem cell research, said the injunction was wreaking havoc across the scientific community, with new grants and research put on hold indefinitely.
"Many assumed in the scientific community that there was a viable research path to follow for stem cells, but now we are back to the big question," said Poulakidas.
Poulakidas said a change to the language of Dickey-Wicker was needed, in addition to legislation that codifies the president's executive order.
"What we absolutely want is something to happen as quickly as possible, and the option of tackling Dickey-Wicker is what has to happen" said Poulakidas. "But it is really unclear how much time Congress will be able to devote to this issue."
The Dickey-Wicker amendment is typically attached to Labor-HHS spending legislation, which is unlikely to come to the floor in the September work period before Congress recesses again to focus on the midterms.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the Senate committee that will be examining the stem cell issue next month.
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