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US stem cell research potentially back on track

13 September 2010
Appeared in BioNews 575

A federal appeals court in the US has ruled that federal funding for embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research may continue and an injunction placed on the funding by a lower court last month is temporarily suspended.

Hearing an appeal brought by the Justice Department against a decision by district federal Judge Royce Lamberth on 23 August, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has placed a stay on proceedings to allow the court to consider arguments in full over the coming weeks. The ruling is not, however, to be taken as a 'ruling on the merits' of the case, said the three judges.

ES cell research has generated highly politicised ethical debates in the US since former President Bush restricted federal funding for the research in August 2001. This decision was repealed by executive order from President Obama in March 2009, but Judge Lamberth ruled that the subsequent guidelines for funding issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were unlawful, citing legislation passed by Congress in 1996 that prohibits the federal funding of research which involves the destruction of human embryos. In response to the recent decision, the Justice Department expressed its approval saying that it 'will allow this important, life-saving research to continue while we present further arguments to the court in the weeks to come.'

Supporters of the research claim that the potential of ES cells to develop into any cell type in the body holds promising therapeutic value. Commenting on the recent decision, Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said that, 'It is crucial that federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research [is] restored permanently, and this stay is a step in that direction.' Many supports are confident that it will overturn Lamberth's decision. Professor Carl Tobias, professor of law at the University of Richmond, said that the ruling has been 'roundly criticized by many people in terms of the legislative history' and that the court would be minded to overturn it. However, some fear that the decision reflects a degree of uncertainty over the future of the research and that greater political support is necessary. 'I take no solace in the ruling because so much uncertainty remains about the future of human stem cell research,' said Dr George Daley, a stem cell scientist at the Children's Hospital Boston. 'I won't rest peacefully until there is a clear and unambiguous vote of support from the Congress for this vital research,' he added.

Opponents argue that federal funds should not be used in research that involves the destruction of what many consider human life and that the benefits of the research are as yet unproven. 'We believe it's a shame that they would rush to push funding of ES cell research, and a waste of taxpayer money,' said a lawyer instructed by the Alliance Defense Fund which is involved in bring the action against the NIH. Opponents have been asked to file a response to the court by 14 September and the Government must then submit its response six days later.

Court delays ban on federal funds for US stem cell work
BBC News |  10 September 2010
Embryonic Stem Cell Research Federal Funding Ban Lifted For The Moment
Medical News Today |  9 September 2010
Federal Stem Cell Funding is Temporarily Back on Track
The Wall Street Journal |  10 September 2010
Federal stem cell funding wins temporary reprieve
The Washington Post |  10 September 2010
Stem Cell Financing Ban Ends, for Now
The New York Times |  9 September 2010
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