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US court upholds federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research

03 September 2012

By Victoria Kay

Appeared in BioNews 671

The US Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling permitting the use of federal funds for research involving human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).

In a long-running legal battle, two US researchers sought to ban the funding of hESC projects by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They claim the funding contravenes a law banning the use of federal money in research involving the destruction of human embryos.

In a unanimous verdict, a three-judge panel at the US Court of Appeals in Washington DC upheld an earlier ruling passed down by a lower court in April 2011. This ruling centred on the wording of an amendment to an appropriations bill called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law which prevents the federal government from funding research in which human embryos are destroyed. The court found that the NIH's interpretation of this law, as allowing grant funding for projects that use existing hESC lines but do not create them, was reasonable.

Stem cell research has always been controversial, with opponents finding the destruction of human embryos for research purposes unacceptable. Following the Dickey-Wicker Amendment in 1996, an executive order from former President George Bush in 2001 banned federal funding for all hESC research, with a few exceptions. This was partially reversed by President Barak Obama in 2009 when he issued an order allowing the use of donated embryos following IVF.

The plaintiffs in this case, Dr James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, Massachusetts, and Dr Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology, Washington - who are adult stem cell researchers and compete for federal funding - claim that President Obama's order contravenes the original Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

'On this issue, the law of the case is against them', wrote Chief Judge David Sentelle, in the latest verdict, adding: 'This is precisely the same argument we rejected in our review of the preliminary injunction order'.

'Dickey-Wicker permits federal funding of research projects that utilise already-derived [embryonic stem cells] – which are not themselves embryos – because no "human embryo or embryos are destroyed" in such projects', wrote Sentelle.

Judge Janice Rogers Brown said 'there are several aspects of this case that... should trouble the heart', reported the Courthouse News Service.

'Given the weighty interests at stake in this encounter between science and ethics, relying on an increasingly Delphic, decade-old single paragraph rider on an appropriations bill hardly seems adequate', she wrote.

Dr Sherley and Dr Deisher are yet to say if they plan to appeal to the US Supreme Court, though less than one percent of cases referred to this court are heard. This verdict may therefore prove to be the final act of a long and drawn out lawsuit which began in 2009.

Dr Gilbert Ross, from the American Council on Science and Health, is pleased with the court's decision, saying: 'Stem cells have such vast potential to solve currently insoluble medical problems, including illnesses such as ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease] and perhaps, eventually, Alzheimer's disease'.

'Certainly, to continue scientific advances in this field, research on stem cells must not be discouraged', he said.

Nature News Blog | 24 August 2012
Courthouse News Service | 27 August 2012
Bloomberg | 24 August 2012
American Council on Science and Health | 27 August 2012


25 February 2013 - by Maria Sheppard 
Human embryonic stem cell lines approved for federal funding in the USA, may have been derived from sperm or eggs of unconsenting donors...
14 January 2013 - by Sarah Pritchard 
The US Supreme Court has declined to hear a final appeal seeking to challenge the legality of using public money to fund embryonic stem cell (hESC) research...
08 October 2012 - by Tom Barrow 
The future funding of human embryonic stem cell research under the European Union may be in jeopardy after its inclusion in the next research funding programme is challenged by MEPs....

30 July 2012 - by Ruth Retassie 
A US federal court has ruled that a stem cell product is classified as a 'drug', falling under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The ruling allows the FDA to regulate stem cell therapy in the USA and could open clinics that offer stem cell treatments open to federal liability...
08 May 2012 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared void a ballot initiative that would have asked voters to expand the definition of a person in the state constitution to include human embryos and fetuses....
19 December 2011 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
A survey of over 200 human embryonic stem cell (hESC) researchers in the US has found almost four in ten respondents had experienced delays in obtaining cell lines and over one-quarter said they were unable to obtain a required cell line at all....
19 August 2011 - by MacKenna Roberts 
Should human embryonic stem cell research be deemed unethical for its embryo destruction? The US court decision in Sherley v Sebelius on 27 July 2011 to allow federal funding of this research set a global precedent. The meaning of research was divided into two categories: that which directly involves embryo destruction and that which does not...
01 August 2011 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
A District Court judge in the US has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to ban federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. The decision, by Judge Royce Lambeth, is the latest development in the case of Sherley v Sebelius – a landmark lawsuit filed against the US's state-funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2009...

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