Promising medical research is in disarray as scientists await an appeal by the Obama administration of a judge's ruling that undercuts taxpayer-funded research using human embryonic stem cells.
The Justice Department said Tuesday it will appeal later this week a federal judge's order temporarily halting such research money, a block that scientists and patient advocates said could irreparably set back the hunt for needed new treatments.
"The present ruling, if it stands, will be major blow to the hopes of many patients and their families," said Dr. Peter Donovan, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Irvine.
Opponents of the research hailed the ruling, saying such federally supported studies are prohibited by law because human embryos are destroyed in order to extract the stem cells.
In the meantime, laboratories around the country struggled to determine which experiments aimed at fighting spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and other ailments will have to stop until the court fight is over. Medical researchers value stem cells because they are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body.
The National Institutes of Health told anxious researchers that if they've already received money this year — $131 million in total — they may keep doing their stem cell work but that no new money can be given out.
That means 22 projects due to get yearly checks in September, another $54 million worth, "will be stopped in their tracks," NIH Director Francis Collins said. Dozens more proposals for new research won't get a hearing.
"This decision has just poured sand into the engine of discovery," Collins said.
However, the ruling drew praise from the Alliance Defense Fund, a group of Christian attorneys who helped with the lawsuit filed by two researchers against the administration rules.
"The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments — prohibited by federal law — that destroy human life," said Steven H. Aden, the group's senior legal counsel. "The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos."
Monday's court ruling is broader than first thought because it would prohibit even the more restricted stem cell research allowed for the past decade under President George W. Bush, according to the White House and scientists.
And how quickly any appeal could go through may determine how much is lost permanently.
"These cells are notoriously finicky and you have to take care of them every day," said Dr. Jonathan Moreno, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "You can't just lock up a lab and walk away for two weeks and come back and everything's fine."
If it takes "months to settle the legal wrangling, then we will just end our work," said Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology, whose lab is studying embryonic stem cells in hopes of reversing a serious intestinal birth defect.
Already, one leading stem cell researcher shifted gears: At Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard University researcher Dr. George Daley told his team to assume it can't use any of millions of dollars in government grant money to nurture the embryonic stem cells growing in his lab but must keep those cells alive by using equipment bought with private funds.
President Barack Obama last year expanded federally funded stem cell research beyond what had been allowed by Bush.
But in a surprise to scientists, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on Monday temporarily blocked such government-funded research, ruling that a pending lawsuit against the Obama policy was likely to succeed in its argument that the research violates the intent of a 1996 law prohibiting use of taxpayer dollars in work that destroys a human embryo.
That law, called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, was written several years before scientists began growing batches, or lines, of stem cells culled from embryos, and Obama and the two previous administrations had made a distinction between it and stem cell research.
Culling embryonic stem cells does kill a days-old embryo, so doing that must be funded with private money. But once the cells are culled, they can reproduce in lab dishes indefinitely. Hence, government policies said using taxpayer dollars to work with the already created batches of cells are OK.
Bush consequently allowed taxpayer-funded research on 21 stem cell lines. Obama expanded — up to 75 so far — the number that could be used if the woman or couple who donated an embryo did so voluntarily and were told of other options, such as donating that embryo to another infertile woman.
Congress twice passed legislation specifically calling for tax-funded stem cell research, legislation that Bush vetoed. Some Democrats said Tuesday they'll try the legislation again.
The lawsuit was filed by two scientists who argued that Obama's expansion jeopardized their ability to win government funding for research using adult stem cells — ones that have already matured to create specific types of tissues — because it will mean extra competition.
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