A federal judge ruled on 23 August 2010 that the federal government must immediately stop funding research that involves human embryonic stem cells (hESC). United States District Judge Royce C. Lamberth found that the Obama Administration’s policy on hESC research violates a federal law that bars the government from funding research that destroys human embryos.

The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by opponents of stem cell research, including the Christian Medical Association, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, two couples seeking to “adopt” unused embryos, and two researchers. Judge Lamberth originally dismissed the lawsuit, but a federal appeals court found that two of the plaintiffs, Dr. James L. Sherley and Dr. Theresa Deisher, had a case. Both are medical researchers who claim that they are disadvantaged by the Obama Administration’s stem cell policy because they study induced pluripotent stem cells (stem cells derived from adult cells). The researchers claim that the government’s guidelines would “result in increased competition for limited federal funding,” thus hindering their ability to seek federal research funding.

In response to the reinstatement of the case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Judge Lamberth found that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is violating the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, language which Congress has enacted annually since 1996 to bar the use of taxpayer funds for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero….” “The language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote. “This prohibition encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed,” as the Justice Department argued.

The court’s preliminary injunction prohibits NIH from funding research under guidelines issued by President Obama in March 2009. These guidelines expanded the number of stem cells lines eligible for federal research funding. Of further concern to some stem cell advocates is that the judge’s ruling may also bar federal funding under the policy created by President George W. Bush, thereby making all research on hESC illegal.

The Justice Department has already announced its intent to appeal the ruling. Lawmakers have also signaled an interest in addressing the issue when Congress returns from recess in September. In the meantime, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has said that the ruling does not affect currently funded research. Grantees were notified via email to continue their research for the current award period. The fate of other research projects is less certain. NIH has already set aside 50 grants awaiting peer review, as well as another dozen grants that had passed the first stage of peer review and were headed to NIH advisory councils. Twenty-two other grants totaling $54 million, which are pending annual renewal in September, will also be held.

 


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