November 2010

Fate of Federal Funding for Stem Cell Research Remains Uncertain

The research community breathed a collective sigh of relief in September when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the National Institutes of Health could continue to fund human embryonic stem cell research. The ruling was one of several procedural decisions in the complicated case unfolding simultaneously in the appeals court and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.


Stem Cells
When stem cells like these human embryonic stem cells divide, each new cell has the potential to remain a stem cell or become a cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell or a red blood cell. Image courtesy of the NIH.

The research community breathed a collective sigh of relief in September when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the National Institutes of Health could continue to fund human embryonic stem cell research. The ruling was one of several procedural decisions in the complicated case unfolding simultaneously in the appeals court and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The recent legal maneuvers follow an Aug. 23 preliminary injunction issued by District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth that prohibited federal funding for hESC research.

The National Institutes of Health immediately shut down its intramural hESC research program and stopped funding new and continuing hESC grants in response to the injunction. Shortly after, HHS challenged the ruling on two fronts: The department asked Judge Lamberth to stay, or suspend, his decision and also appealed to the higher court to overturn it. Judge Lamberth rejected the motion for a stay, a move anticipated by legal experts. Fortunately, the Court of Appeals responded more favorably. It issued an “administrative stay” on Sept. 9 that temporarily suspended the injunction; just over two weeks later, the court extended its suspension pending a final determination in the appeal. That extension came on the heels of oral arguments before the court during which U.S. Department of Justice attorneys representing the NIH argued that resuming the ban would “irreparably” harm researchers.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a collection of patient organizations, universities and scientific societies, including the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, filed an “amicus curiae” brief supporting the government’s appeal. The University of California went a step further, petitioning the court to become a party in the lawsuit. It argued that the ban would have a profoundly negative impact on research and education in the UC system and that its interests are not represented by any of the parties in the case. The appeals court rejected the motion but did grant the university permission to submit its own amicus. How the appeals court ultimately will rule is anyone’s guess. It has, however, signaled that it will expedite the proceedings.

For background information on stem cells see Geoffrey Hunt’s article in the October issue of ASBMB Today.

Meanwhile, the lower court is moving ahead with the original lawsuit challenging the legality of hESC research. The plaintiffs have asked Judge Lamberth to rule in their favor without a hearing. The government objected and filed a cross-motion for a speedy decision in its favor, a move supported by CAMR in a separate amicus. It is not clear whether or not Judge Lamberth will make a quick decision or how he will decide the case. If he ultimately rules for the plaintiffs, it would close the door on promising stem cell science once again.

While the legal wrangling continues, pressure has been mounting for lawmakers to develop a “legislative fix.” FASEB issued an action alert asking scientists to contact their members of Congress to urge them to approve legislation that will continue federal support for hESC research. Over 4,000 e-mails have been sent to senators and representatives as a result of the FASEB call-to-action. Since the alert was issued, support for stem cell research has gained momentum: U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., has secured 16 additional co-sponsors for the “Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2009,” and Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the “Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2010.” Both bills would codify the HHS “Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research,” effectively expanding the scope of federally funded hESC research beyond what was permissible under President Bush. 

Jennifer A. Hobin (jhobin@faseb.org) is director of science policy for the Office of Public Affairs at FASEB.


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