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.