President Barack Obama’s administration can fund embryonic stem-cell research while it appeals a decision banning government support for any activity using cells taken from human embryos, an appeals court said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington today put on hold a ruling by District Judge Royce Lamberth during its review of the ban. The Justice Department argued that the judge’s decision would cause irreparable harm to researchers, taxpayers and scientific progress.
Lifting the ban allows the government to temporarily continue funneling tens of millions of dollars to scientists seeking cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, and genetic conditions. Embryonic stem cells can grow into any kind of tissue and may have the potential to accelerate a range of research.
“The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the emergency motion for stay and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion,” the appeals court wrote in its decision
Opponents of federal stem-cell funding have until Sept. 14 to file a response, and the U.S. can submit a response on Sept. 20, the appeals court said.
Lamberth on Aug. 23 issued an order temporarily stopping the Health and Human Services Department and the National Institutes of Health from funding or conducting the studies. On Sept. 7, Lamberth denied a U.S. request to reconsider his ruling.
The judge cited the still-in-force 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment in his ruling, saying that Congress prohibited funding any research in which a human embryo was destroyed. By implication, that included all stem-cell research, Lamberth said.
“A stay would flout the will of Congress, as this court understands what Congress has enacted in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” Lamberth wrote on Sept. 7. “Congress remains perfectly free to amend or revise the statute. This court is not free to do so.”
In March 2009, Obama reversed an executive order of former President George W. Bush to allow research on cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be disposed of after in vitro fertilization procedures.
Under the Bush order, Dickey-Wicker was interpreted to allow research on lines of stem cells that already had been created using human embryos. In his August 2001 executive order, Bush limited federal funding for such research to about 20 existing lines of embryonic cells and banned federal funding on lines created after that time.
In his Aug. 23 ruling, Lamberth said the administration was attempting to separate the derivation of the embryonic stem cells from research on them, and “the two cannot be separated.”
Lamberth’s order would prevent the National Institutes of Health from acting on grant applications that have been reviewed, and from considering dozens of other applications that are in the review process, the U.S. wrote in an appeal yesterday. It may take as long as eight months to reinitiate the review process for grant applications, the U.S. said.
“Disruption of ongoing research will result in irreparable setbacks and, in many cases, may destroy a project altogether,” attorneys for the U.S. wrote.
Researchers are unsure how to proceed after the appeals court ruling, said Ted Dawson, the co-director at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Cell Engineering in Baltimore.
“We’re very happy with the decision but we’re in limbo,” Dawson said. Scientists working in this area are asking themselves, “Is this something I want to continue to stake my career on?” he said.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins and other institutions are continuing their work using federal dollars they already have, in addition to money from state agencies and philanthropies, Dawson said. Because of the ruling, “we have a little bit of time to make contingency plans,” he said.
Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and chairman of the Senate health committee and the appropriations subcommittee that funds medical research, said today’s order was “outstanding news.”
“Obviously, this is not the end of the legal process,” Harkin said in a statement. “But it’s a positive sign that Judge Lamberth’s ruling will ultimately be overturned.”
The case is Sherley v. Sebelius, 10-5287, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).