Researchers Stunned By Halt To Stem Cell Funding

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A federal court ruling Monday has left some scientists in a lurch. The court ruled that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research must come to a halt, at least temporarily. And now the scientific community is trying to figure out what lies ahead.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A federal court ruling yesterday has left some scientists in the lurch. The court ruled that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research must come to a halt, at least temporarily. And now, the scientific community is trying to figure out what lies ahead. The court's ruling applies only to stem cells derived from embryos, not to so-called adult stem cells, more on that distinction in a moment.

First, here's NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER: National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said he was stunned by the decision by federal district court Judge Royce Lamberth to halt federal embryonic stem cell research funding, and he predicted that if the injunction isn't lifted, the outcome won't be good.

Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS (Director, National Institutes of Health): This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research.

ROVNER: Collins said researchers who've already gotten the $131 million in grant money from NIH this year won't have to give it back. But work on tens of millions of dollars in grant renewals has been halted, so has review of pending grants.

Alan Trounson heads the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It's funded by a state-ballot measure. But he says many researchers in the state were also getting NIH funds. For them, the outlook is grim.

Dr. ALAN TROUNSON (President, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine): Part of the laboratories will be decimated by this, and so I don't think the universities here are in a good state to support those missing grant funds for the time being because of the difficulties of the Californian economy and the impacts it's having on the universities here.

ROVNER: But those researches won't get any sympathy from those who brought the lawsuit. They point to a law in effect since the mid-1990s. Known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, it bans funding of research that harms embryos. They argued in their lawsuit that the ban on funding should extend to research on embryonic stem cell lines whether or not they were created with federal dollars. And the judge agreed with them.

Steven Aden is the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case.

Mr. STEVEN ADEN (Senior Legal Counsel, Alliance Defense Fund): He, in essence, said that Congress intended much more in passing the Dickey-Wicker Amendment than an arcane interpretation that says as long as the taxpayer dollars did not specifically go for the destruction of the embryo, it's okay.

ROVNER: Even some who do support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research have longed been suspect of the way that funding has been pursued.

Dr. LOUIS GHANEM (Ethicist, Harvard Medical School): The belief has been cultivated that the matter could be handled by executive order.

ROVNER: Louis Ghanem is an ethicist at Harvard Medical School and a supporter of embryonic stem cell research. But he's been warning for years that an opinion by a lawyer for the Clinton administration that federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research as long as they weren't used to actually destroy the embryo would never hold up in court. In fact, he says had anyone bothered to sue, President George W. Bush's policy probably would have been overturned on the same grounds.

Dr. GHANEM: The opinion was issued in 1999, and it's been invoked by three successive administrations. And this just happens by accident to be the first time that a court has ruled on the merit about that interpretation.

ROVNER: And he says there's only one way to fix it.

Dr. GHANEM: The right originates with the Congress, and they've got the complete power to override it.

ROVNER: And that's exactly what Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette hopes will happen as soon as Congress gets back from its summer break. She said she was already working to again pass the bill Congress has passed twice in the past four years.

Representative DIANA DeGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): I think that the shocking nature of this court opinion yesterday will raise that bill up much higher on the agenda.

ROVNER: If there's going to be a problem with the bill, it will likely be in the Senate where almost nothing is moving. DeGette notes the last time the stem cell bill was before that chamber, it got more than enough votes to break a filibuster, but that wasn't just before a pivotal midterm election.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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