Halt to funding new stem cell research in the USA

By Grant Jacobs 25/08/2010

Judge rules a stay on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the USA.

Previously I wrote about a new twist in a law suit involving Christian groups and two scientists suing US government departments over embryonic stem cell research (ESC), based on their having to compete for funding.

Recent reports say that the judge has now issued an injunction putting a temporary stay on federal funding of human ESC research, resulting in NIH director Francis Collins freezing funding on up-coming grants. (Private funding is apparently unaffected.)

It seems that the judge has concluded that if embryos are ’destroyed’* to make an embryonic stem cell line,** subsequent research that uses these embryonic stem cell lines, but that is not itself ’destroying’ embryos, cannot be funded, arguing the the sourcing of the research material and the research cannot be separated:

ESC research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed. To conduct ESC research, ESCs must be derived from an embryo. The process of deriving ESCs from an embryo results in the destruction of the embryo. Thus, ESC research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo.

Despite defendants’ attempt to separate the derivation of ESCs from research on the ESCs, the two cannot be separated. Derivation of ESCs from an embryo is an integral step in conducting ESC research. Indeed, it is just one of many steps in the ’systematic investigation’ of stem cell research. 45 C.F.R. § 46.102(d). Simply because ESC research involves multiple steps does not mean that each step is a separate ’piece of research’ that may be federally funded, provided the step does not result in the destruction of an embryo. If one step or ’piece of research’ of an ESC research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Because ESC research requires the derivation of ESCs, ESC research is research in which an embryo is destroyed. Accordingly, the Court concludes that, by allowing federal funding of ESC research, the Guidelines are in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

This summary (I’m assuming it is accurate) lays out a brief history of events, pointing out that

Essentially, the NIH/Obama position banks on the interpretation that research done on ESC lines is fundamentally separated from the derivation of those lines.  In other words, that the Dickey-Wicker amendment does not pertain to the actual research done on derived cell lines because they define it as a separate ’piece of research’.

and that it is this that the plaintiffs seek to overturn, going on to say that the court presents

[…] a crystal-clear equation of downstream research to upstream sourcing of research materials, and possibly brings up ethical dilemmas in other fields.

Either way, it is already disrupting research.

The memorandum opinion says, and as far as I understand rests upon, that the two scientists meet the ’high standard for irreparable injury’ if this injunction is not ruled, in this case because this ’increased competition for limited funds is an actual, imminent injury’ that I previously wrote about. It seems a nonsense to me, or perhaps more accurately a disingenuous excuse. (On a related note, it also says it doesn’t block ESC research groups from getting alternative funding. Wouldn’t the same logic apply to these scientists, too?)

There’s more, but you can read the full document on-line and decide for yourself.

A recent update is that the Justice department have said they intend to appeal.

For recent further reading, the New York Times features an editorial Wrong Direction on Stem Cells, as well as some words about the scientist plaintiffs.


* I write ‘destroyed’ in double inverted commas as my understanding is that these are derived from ‘surplus’ embryos from intro fertilisation that would otherwise be discarded. If so, they aren’t being ’destroyed’ in the sense that this word might imply. Others say that the definition of research used is suspect, too. (I’d go into that, but haven’t time.)

** An excellent concise description, with graphics, of how the different types of stem cells are created can be found on the University of Utah Genetic Learning Center website page Creating stems cells for research.

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