The Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided last week to allow federally funded human embryonic stem cell research to continue, extending a temporary stay of a lower court’s injunction barring the funding. A district court ruled in August that government funding for embryonic stem cell research was barred by the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits government funding for any research in which a human embryo is destroyed.
The government successfully met the standards required for a stay pending appeal, part of which was demonstrating irreparable harm without the stay. The government argued that the stay was needed to avoid terminating research projects already in progress, which would have a negative impact on the development of new treatments for serious illnesses. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos and have the ability to differentiate into any cell type and propagate indefinitely. Because of these properties, embryonic stem cells may one day be able to contribute to the treatment or cure of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, type 1 diabetes, blindness, and spinal cord injuries.
This was positive news for the White House, as President Obama has made stem cell funding by the National Institute of Health a top priority, broadening federal funding from former President Bush’s order limiting funding to research dealing with already existing cell lines. Since Obama lifted the former restriction in 2009, the NIH has funded over $500 million in human embryonic stem cell research.
The current case was brought by James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, scientists who work with adult stem cells and are ethically opposed to embryonic stem cell research. They argue that funding for human embryonic stem cell research unfairly takes away money and support for their own research, a position supported by right-to-life groups who oppose the destruction of human embryos.
It could be several months before the appellate court issues a final ruling on the legality of the funding, and whichever side loses will most likely appeal to the Supreme Court. Congress, however, could (and some think should) potentially end the debate earlier by rewriting the bill that funds the NIH to explicitly allow human embryonic stem cell research. Similar bills were passed previously in 2006 and 2007, but vetoed by Bush. The most recent reincarnation of the bill, the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act, is currently before the house.
However, regardless of whether the Supreme Court or Congress makes the final rule, the current stay of the injunction is evidence that the tide is turning in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, a victory for both researchers and those suffering from diseases that may one day be cured by it.