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US judge rules against Obama's stem cell policy

31 August 2010
Appeared in BioNews 573

A ruling of a district federal judge has halted federally funded embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in the United States.

Judge Royce Lamberth, after hearing an action brought by two scientists - said to be backed by Christian groups - against the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ruled that its guidelines to allow federal funding for ES cell research are unlawful and contravene existing legislation implemented by Congress in 1996. The NIH has reportedly halted funding for new ES cell projects and the decision has cast doubt on existing funds already in place, according to the Washington Post newspaper.

In March 2009, President Obama issued an executive order repealing a ban imposed by ex-President Bush on the provision of federal funds for ES cell research on new stem cell lines. Under President Bush only cell lines derived from embryos prior to 2001 were eligible for federal funding. Obama's decision was one of his first upon becoming President and was hailed at the time by many as a boost to America's scientific and technological advancement. Many scientists maintain that ES cell research remains a promising avenue for the development of treatments and cures for a number of disorders including Parkinson's disease. Opponents argue that adult stem cell research is more ethical: many are against the consequential destruction of embryos which some view as human life. Private funding has always remained an option for ES cell researchers in the US but following Obama's executive order the NIH implemented new regulations which expanded the number of ES cell lines available for research and outlined requirements for federal funding of the research.

In granting the injunction against the research, Judge Lamberth, widely considered to be conservative, held that it 'is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed,' and was thus prohibited under existing law. 'To conduct [ES cell] research, ES cells must be derived from an embryo. The process of deriving ES cells from an embryo results in the destruction of the embryo. Thus ES cell research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo,' he ruled.

The US Congress passed an amendment in 1996, dubbed the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes and any research which involves the destruction of embryos. The ruling effectively means that the court has overruled President Obama's executive order and that the NIH guidelines from 2009 are unlawful.

Many commentators have spoken out against the decision. The Washington Post called it 'unnecessarily disruptive' casting doubt over the future of what it considers promising lines of research. Speaking in the New York Times, Dr George Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at the Children's Hospital Boston, said: 'This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order.'

A spokesman for the White House said it was considering all possibilities to allow ES cell research to continue and that it will be seeking to challenge Lamberth's decision. Judge Lamberth will next conduct a full hearing to determine if the injunction on the NIH guidelines should be made permanent.

Judge stops federal funding of embryonic stem cell research
CNN |  24 August 2010
Obama mulls options after stem cell plan blocked
The Houston Chronicle |  24 August 2010
Stem cells, politics and the law
The Guardian |  24 August 2010
US court halts plans to increase stem cell research
BBC News Online |  23 August 2010
US court suspends research on human embryonic stem cells
Nature |  24 August 2010
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