Stem-Cell Suit’s Chilling Effect on Labs Already a Win for Foes

Sean Morrison Stem Cell Researcher University Michigan
Sean Morrison, researcher at the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology. Source: University of Michigan

Sean Morrison earned a presidential award in 2003 from George W. Bush for his research on the underlying causes of Hirschsprung’s disease, a life-threatening intestinal illness in newborns. His quest for a treatment is now jeopardized by a judge’s ruling.

An Aug. 23 order by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth that halted federal funding for research using stem cells taken from embryos has Morrison, a 42-year-old University of Michigan scientist, concerned he won’t be able to support his lab’s discovery efforts. At Harvard University, researcher George Daley said newly minted scientists have told him they may abandon plans to train with him because of the judge’s order.

While a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington has allowed continued funding as the case is heard, the outcome’s uncertainty “completely pulls the rug out from under” scientists seeking to organize new research and hire workers, Morrison said. Foes may have won regardless of the court decision, said Thomas Murray, a bioethicist.

“It’s a tactical victory,” said Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research center in Garrison, New York, in a telephone interview. “If their goal was to make human embryonic stem-cell research a less attractive option for American researchers, they’ve succeeded, even if they lose their court case.”

Lamberth ruled last month that the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment prohibits using U.S. taxpayer money to study the stem cells because human embryos are destroyed by extracting the cells. The amendment has been added to appropriations bills for the Department of Health and Human Services each year since it was first enacted. The appeals court said Sept. 9 that the government can fund research while the injunction is appealed.

Expanded Funding

President Barack Obama in March 2009 allowed expanded funding for embryonic stem cells, overturning restrictions that were placed on the research since 2001 by former President Bush. Obama’s ruling allowed the U.S. National Institutes of Health to spend $131 million on 199 embryonic stem-cell projects during fiscal 2010, which ends Sept. 30, according to an Aug. 31 government court submission to Lamberth.

Embryonic stem cells can grow into any kind of body tissue and have the potential to repair or replace cells damaged by illness or injury, and may lead to therapies for Parkinson’s disease, spinal-cord injuries and other conditions.

Newborn Defect

Morrison has been studying Hirschsprung’s disease, a genetic disorder that strikes one in 5,000 newborns, for more than eight years. His lab is testing intestinal nervous system cells, made from human embryonic stem cells, in rodents as a prelude to their possible testing in patients. The federal grant supporting the work ends in July. Without additional federal funding, he may abandon the research, he said.

“Everybody is sitting in their labs thinking, ‘How much more of this do I really want to deal with?’ I know I’m thinking that,” said Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the university in Ann Arbor.

The NIH gave Morrison $744,000 over the last two years to pursue embryonic stem-cell research involving Hirschsprung’s. Morrison said he may have to cancel his plan to apply for a five-year, $1.86 million grant to continue the next step of the work, which may lead to tests in people, given the uncertainty.

Daley, founding member of the executive committee at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in testimony at a Sept. 16 congressional subcommittee that he is trying to come up with private funding for embryonic stem cell research so he doesn’t have to dismiss anybody.

Stopping Progress

If funding ends for Daley’s main project, exploring whether alternative stem cells are as versatile as embryonic cells, that would “stop cold major new research collaborations that have already proven remarkably productive,” Daley testified.

State and private funding is available to fill the gap should U.S. funding end, though not on the same scale, said Arnold Kriegstein, director of the University of California at San Francisco’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research.

“That’s fine for the short term but we’re here for the long haul and we need some security for long-range projects,” Kriegstein said in a telephone interview. Only the federal government can fulfill that role, he said.

“How can somebody plan a successful career when faced with that kind of uncertainty?” he asked.

‘Crazy’ to Start

Timothy Kamp, director of the University of Wisconsin Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center in Madison, said any researcher using human embryonic stem cells now is questioning whether they should continue.

“You’d be crazy” to begin any new research on the cells, given the timing of the legal case, said Kamp, who is also the co-founder of a closely held company, Cellular Dynamics International of Madison, Wisconsin, that uses stem cells to make heart tissue, in a telephone interview.

Morrison and Daley testified before the Senate subcommittee that approves the National Institutes of Health’s budget. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the panel, is the lead sponsor of legislation to extend the institutes’ support for embryonic stem-cell research.

Earlier versions of Harkin’s bill to guarantee funding passed Congress in 2006 and 2007, only to be vetoed by Bush. Harkin said he would work to pass a new bill to provide money for the research if the court rules against it.

Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington, said passing a bill is a long shot with so short a time before the November congressional elections, or in a session after the elections.

Republicans who backed Harkin’s previous bill for funding have incentives to block congressional action now even if they agree with him, she said. The Republican Party has become more politically conservative since 2006, and party leaders may want to deprive Obama of a political victory on stem cells, Binder said. Democrats may also be drawn into the fray.

“I don’t get the sense that there’s an appetite for making room for things that are in any way controversial,” Binder said in a telephone interview.

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