Halt to Stem Cell Funds May Block Search for Cures

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama, seen here, in March 2009 lifted restrictions on U.S. government funding for the research imposed in 2001 by former President George W. Bush, allowing studies on cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be disposed of after in-vitro fertilization procedures. Photographer: Ron Sachs/Pool via Bloomberg

Federal funding for embryonic stem cell studies in the U.S. is again under attack after a judge blocked President Barack Obama’s expanded rules for scientists, potentially disrupting the field and discouraging new research.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington yesterday temporarily halted federal funding of studies using the cells, which can grow into any kind of tissue and are thought to have the potential to accelerate research into disease cures. Lamberth ruled the work violates a law passed by Congress to bar federal funding of the destruction of human embryos.

Obama in March 2009 lifted restrictions on U.S. government funding for the research imposed in 2001 by former President George W. Bush, allowing studies on cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be disposed of after in-vitro fertilization procedures. Lamberth, in a 15-page decision, wrote that such research “necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo,” and that federal funding is barred under a 1996 law called the Dickey-Wicker amendment.

“The message this sends to researchers in this country, especially young researchers trying to get into this field, is a very, very negative one,” said Martin Pera, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It’s very disruptive, and will throw into doubt a lot of very important federally funded research.”

No Separation

The Obama administration, Lamberth said, was attempting to separate the derivation of embryonic stem cells from research on them, and “the two cannot be separated.”

White House spokesman Bill Burton referred questions to the Justice Department which he said “is reviewing the matter.” He declined to comment further.

The Dickey-Wicker amendment reflects “the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote. “If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an embryonic stem cell research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker amendment.”

Researchers disagree, saying the regulations under Obama don’t provide U.S. funding for the destruction of human embryos.

“Almost all embryonic stem cell lines were created from embryos that were about to be discarded from fertility clinics,” Leonard Zon, director of the Stem Cell Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said yesterday. “The moral value you’d place on embryos used for embryonic stem cell research isn’t equivalent to a full-grown child for most people.”

Support for Ruling

For opponents of the field, federal funding for such research equates to taxpayer support for the destruction of human life, said Steven H. Aden, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund in Washington, a Christian organization that represented the two remaining plaintiffs in the case.

“The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments -- prohibited by federal law -- that destroy human life,” Aden said yesterday in a statement on the alliance’s website. “The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos,” he said.

Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department are reviewing Lamberth’s ruling before deciding how to proceed, spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said in an e-mail.

Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado and a leading proponent for Obama’s move, said the law needs to be changed.

‘Closed That Door’

“President Obama’s executive order last year opened a door to hope and promise for those patients, and today, Judge Lamberth has sadly once again closed that door,” DeGette said in an e-mail. “We must pass common-sense embryonic stem cell research legislation, placing these regulations into statute and, once and for all, ensuring this critical life-saving research can be conducted for years to come.”

Obama’s directive said the National Institutes of Health was free to “support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research” using embryonic cells.

Doctors James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, identified by Lamberth as adult stem cell researchers, sued in August 2009, arguing the guidelines breached the Dickey-Wicker constraints. They also argued they were being irreparably harmed by having to compete for NIH funding with researchers using embryonic cells.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to give rise to any of the about 200 types of cells in the human body. Adult stem cells, researched for about 50 years, are found in mature tissue. They are more limited than embryonic stem cells in their ability to differentiate into other cell types.

Dramatic Setback

The injunction on federal funding, if made permanent, may set the field back to a time before Bush’s 2001 order, said Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Bush’s policies allowed research on about 20 cell lines in existence at the time.

“If the decision holds and no embryonic stem cell research can be funded by the National Institutes of Health, it will be a really huge loss,” Loring said yesterday in a telephone interview. “It will throw us back practically into the last century.”

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