A federal judge temporarily halted federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells, creating consternation among medical researchers and celebration among Christian activists opposed to the research.
Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposed a preliminary injunction on federal funding of the research, pending the final outcome of a lawsuit filed to stop the U.S. government from sponsoring embryonic stem cell research. President Barack Obama had sought to restore federal funding for the research after it was banned in 1996. Lamberth ruled that Obama’s stem cell funding policy violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which was aimed at stopping the destruction of human embryos.
Obama’s policy allowed the use of stem cell lines derived from frozen embryos from fertility treatments that were no longer needed and donated according to stringent ethical guidelines. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, argued that the Obama policy violated the Dickey-Wicker rules.
Lamberth agreed, ruling that Sherley and Deisher are likely to prevail in the lawsuit and that the Dickey-Wicker rules clearly bans federal funding of research using ESC-derived lines, because “the language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” according to court documents.
“This prohibition encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed. Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo, like the derivation of ESCs, or to research on the embryo itself, Congress could have written the statute that way,” Lamberth wrote. “Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written. Accordingly, this Court must ‘give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress’ to prohibit federal funding of research in which a human embryo is destroyed.”
Lamberth also ruled that Sherley and Deisher, who use adult stem cells in their research, face unfair competition for federal dollars from researchers who use ESCs.
“This increased competition for limited funds is an actual, imminent injury,” he wrote. “There is no after-the-fact remedy for this injury because the Court cannot compensate plaintiffs for their lost opportunity to receive funds.”
Researchers who rely on ESC-derived stem cells were quick to call foul, saying Lamberth’s decision would create turmoil.
“This is criminal,” Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer for Advanced Cell Technology Inc., told the Los Angeles Times. “We are talking about people going blind, people who are dying from a terrifying array of diseases.”
Santa Monica, Calif.-based Advanced Cell uses ESC-derived cells to grow other cells that restored vision in rats and mice with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and is seeking permission from the Food & Drug Administration to use the cells in a clinical trial.
“The long-term practical impact is a massive halt to most embryonic stem cell research in the U.S.” added Dr. Irving Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, according to the LAT. The ruling is “devastating to the hopes of researchers and patients who have been waiting so long for the promise of stem cell therapies,” Weissman told the New York Times.
Evan Snyder, director of the stem cells and regenerative biology program at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., told the Wall Street Journal that the ruling is “an astounding blow to American biomedical research and to health care” because research using ESCs and ESC-derived lines has brought “critical insights into development, diseases, and therapies. To not be able to use these lines and follow up on and exploit the findings” would be major setback, he told the WSJ.
“I have had to tell everyone in my lab that when they feed their cells tomorrow morning, they better use media that has not been funded by the federal government,” Dr. George Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, told the NYT. “This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order.”
Christian advocates for the ban hailed the ruling, with Charmaine Yoest, CEO of Americans United for Life, calling it a “common-sense decision,” according to the WSJ.
“The Obama administration has attempted to skirt the law by arguing that they are only funding research after the embryos are destroyed,” Yoest told the LAT. “That Administration policy is in violation of the law.”
“Federal money should not be used for destroying human embryos for the purpose of research,” Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which tries to help infertile couples obtain embryos left over from other fertility treatments, told the Journal.
“We do not want to see stem cell research that would destroy embryos,” Stoddart told the NYT. “Embryos are preborn human life that should be protected and not destroyed. If there was a way of extracting the stem cells without destroying them, I would not be opposed to it.”