Court Lifts Funding Ban On Stem Cell Research
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.
The on-again, off-again federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is on again. This afternoon, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals here in Washington, lifted a lower court ruling that halted most of the research funding last month. But this latest resumption of funding may not last long. The appeals court says its ruling is only temporary. It wants to hear arguments from both sides in the pending lawsuit later this month.
NPR's Julie Rovner is here to explain. And, Julie, let's go back a little bit and talk about what stem cells are in question here.
JULIE ROVNER: Well, we're talking about research using stem cells derived from human embryos. Now, scientists say these embryonic stem cells are so medically promising cause they can turn into any cell in the body. They hope some day they can be used to treat or cure a variety of so far intractable diseases and conditions.
But to get these cells you have to destroy a human embryo and thats whats made this whole line of research so controversial. Since the mid-1990s, Congress has banned funding for research that threatens or harms embryos.
BLOCK: But there has been some embryonic stem cell research for years now.
ROVNER: Absolutely, there has. President Bush allowed some limited research starting in 2001, using stem cell lines that were already in existence so that no further embryos would be destroyed using federal funds. And thats basically been the policy, stated in a legal memo that actually dates back to the Clinton administration, it would be okay for the federal government to fund research on embryonic stem cell lines themselves, as long as no federal money was used to destroy the embryo and create the stem cell line in the first place.
BLOCK: Okay. And that brings up to the current lawsuit. Whats that about?
ROVNER: Well, it was filed by two scientists who study stem cells taken from adults. Now, those are considered not quite as medically promising as the embryonic stem cells. These scientists say they're at a disadvantage in getting grants from the National Institutes of Health, if it's using its money to fund embryonic stem cell research.
And the scientists say the Obama administration's embryonic stem cell policy, which expanded the availability of cell lines compared to the policy that President Bush had - although President Obama's stem cell policy still says no federal money can be used to destroy those embryos - they say that violates this longstanding congressional ban on research that harms embryos.
BLOCK: Okay. And then the district court judge that ruled last month sided with those researchers.
ROVNER: Well, he hasnt formally decided the case yet. But he signaled that he might well do that by imposing an immediate injunction on all federal embryonic stem cell research, or at least most federal embryonic stem cell research. So now the NIH has halted most of its plans for future funding. And it argued to the appeals court, which today lifted that injunction, at least temporarily, that stopping the research, even for a few weeks, could result in irreparable setbacks and even scuttles some research.
BLOCK: So, Julie, what happens now? If Im a researcher, do I now resume my research?
ROVNER: Well, thats not clear. We're still waiting to hear from the NIH what its going to do. But in the meantime, we've got two separate court actions going on. The original judge still has to decide the original case from these two researchers, which he indicated could happen soon, perhaps in the coming days. The same time, the appeals court has given the parties in the case until the 20th of September to provide more detail on their arguments about whether to lift this injunction permanently.
Meanwhile, Congress could make this entire thing go away. It comes back from its summer break next week. It could pass the same embryonic stem cell research bill that it passed twice during the Bush administration, both times got vetoed by President Bush. But, of course, if they passed it again then President Obama would almost certainly sign it.
BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Julie Rovner, thanks very much.
ROVNER: You're very welcome.