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US Supreme Court: Challenge to expand stem cell funding rejected

14 January 2013
Appeared in BioNews 688

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear a final appeal seeking to challenge the legality of using public money to fund human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. The decision was made by the highest court in the USA and brings an end to the long running legal dispute, Sherley v Sebelius, and allows for federal funds to be made available for hESC research using embryos donated from IVF.

President Barack Obama lifted a ban on the federal funding of hESC research imposed by former President George W Bush in 2009 and issued guidelines stating that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is funded by public money, could conduct 'scientifically worthy human stem cell research to the extent permitted by law' (see BioNews 498 and 505). However, later the same year, two adult stem cell researchers, James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, brought a legal challenge against the Government arguing that the federal funding of hESC research is illegal as it involves the destruction of human embryos.

A judge ordered in 2010 that the NIH should stop funding the research in view of a congressional ban against funding research that leads to the destruction of human embryos, known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment (see BioNews 573). The injunction was suspended by the federal Court of Appeals later that year, pending further consideration of the case (see BioNews 575), and was later overturned (see BioNews 608).

The original judge who granted the injunction, Judge Royce Lambeth, then gave a judgment for the Government (see BioNews 618), only for that to be appealed by Sherley and Deisher. The matter was finally heard by the federal Court of Appeals in 2012, which decided in favour of the Government (see BioNews 671). It held the ban only applies to research in which embryos are destroyed in order to obtain stem cells. The type of research in question derives stem cells from already-existing embryos left over from fertility treatment that would otherwise be discarded.

'We couldn't be happier that this frivolous, but at the same time potentially devastating distraction is behind us', said Dr Douglas Melton, a scientific director at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Massachusetts, USA.

Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington, DC, added that the refusal to hear the case represented a 'great day for science'.

Opponents of hESC research have voiced their concerns over the endorsement of publicly funded programs. Steven Aden, a senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, involved in the case, said: 'Americans should not be forced to pay for experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments and violate federal law - especially in burdened fiscal times like these'.

Sherley said the decision would not stop his efforts to 'emancipate human embryos from research slavery sponsored by the NIH'.

High court ensures continued US funding of human embryonic-stem-cell research
Nature News |  7 January 2013
Supreme Court lets embryonic stem cell research go forward
NBC News |  7 January 2013
Supreme Court rejects challenge to Obama stem cell policy
Los Angeles Times |  7 January 2013
US Supreme Court leaves stem cell research alone
Associated Free Press |  8 January 2013
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