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U.S. Stem-Cell Research Attacked in Appeals Court

U.S. funding of human embryonic stem cell studies violates the law and must be stopped, a lawyer for two scientists who sued the Obama administration told a federal appeals court.

The attorney, Thomas Hungar, sought today to persuade a three-judge panel in Washington to halt the flow of federal funds for research on stem cells where human embryos are injured or destroyed. A lower-court judge, ruling the research violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment limiting stem-cell research, temporarily barred funding during the case. The U.S. appealed.

“There’s no question they are trying to, and are, incentivizing the destruction of embryos in violation of the amendment,” Hungar said.

A lawyer for the Justice Department, Beth S. Brinkmann, said the spending is legal because the government isn’t paying for the destruction of embryos. The stem-cell lines used in the research were created outside the government, she said.

Without the ability to support research on embryonic stem-cell lines, the government said, years of progress toward finding cures for diseases and disorders will be lost and scientists will look to other countries such as Singapore and China to continue their work.

One of the appellate judges, Thomas Griffith, asked the government whether funding research on a stem-cell line that came from a non-government laboratory violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment since the only way to create such a line involves the destruction of an embryo.

Judge’s Query

“When a recipient of an NIH grant pays $1,000 to a lab that derives the stem cells, why is that not paying for destruction of an embryo?” Griffith asked, referring to the National Institutes of Health.

Brinkmann responded that the stem-cell research is separate from any research that destroyed the embryo because the cells must be grown in a medium and are then “differentiated” into other cells, such as nerve cells.

“The research is on those differentiated cells,” Brinkmann said, adding that 80 of the 82 embryonic stem-cell lines being studied were developed before the NIH’s new guidelines were approved in 2009.

In fiscal 2010, NIH spent about $200 million to fund more than 200 human embryo research grants, the Justice Department and the institutes’ director, Francis Collins, said in court papers. Embryonic stem cells can grow into any of the 200 types of cells in the human body. Scientists say these cells have the potential to be used to repair those damaged by injury or disease.

Change of Course

President Barrack Obama in March 2009 opened up government funding for the study of embryonic stem cells when he reversed an executive order of former President George W. Bush limiting research to about 20 existing lines of embryonic cells.

In response to Obama’s order, the NIH wrote new guidelines allowing research on cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be disposed of after in vitro fertilization procedures.

Two doctors, identified in court papers as adult stem cell researchers, sued in August 2009, arguing that NIH guidelines breach the Dickey-Wicker strictures.

James Sherley, a researcher at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Theresa Deisher of Seattle won the right to bring the suit by claiming they were unfairly disadvantaged in competing for NIH funding with researchers who used embryonic cells.

Trial Court Ruling

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington on Aug. 23 ordered the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the NIH to stop funding embryonic stem-cell research.

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.”

The appeals court in September put Lamberth’s injunction against funding on hold until it reviewed his decision.

Since 2002, the government has spent $546 million on human embryo research, Collins wrote in an Aug. 31 court filing. If the ban is upheld, Collins said, it will result in the loss of more than 1,300 full or part-time jobs, as well as “the potential loss of top U.S. scientific talent as lead scientists may be forced to move to other countries to pursue their cutting-edge research.”

Stem-cell researchers are 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 case is Sherley v. Sebelius, 10-5287, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).

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