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US Court Suspends Research On Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Publication Date: 
August 25, 2010
Source: 
Nature
Author: 
Alla Katsnelson

Professor Hank Greely is quoted in Nature on a preliminary U.S. District Court ruling, which suspends federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Alla Katsnelson filed this story:

US stem-cell researchers are reeling from a court order handed down yesterday that puts a temporary hold on the current policy for federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research. Now, many are calling for legislation that would make such research unambiguously legal once and for all.

The court order is the outcome of a lawsuit originally filed last August against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, which contends that federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells is illegal because it requires the destruction of embryos.

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Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University in California, calls the decision "bizarre" from a legal standpoint. "This just looks wrong," Greely says. "This looks to me like a very surprising and questionable legal decision.

"Basically, they are saying that all ESC research is a part of a broader system of research that includes the initial destruction of embryos. Which would be kind of like saying that all research into nuclear power stems from the Manhattan Project," he says.

"It sounds like it would imply that if you're researching gravity, everything from Sir Isaac Newton forward counts as part of your research programme." This doesn't make sense, he explains, because a given NIH grant proposal requests funds for a particular research project.

The decision also goes against a long-standing interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, Greely notes, not made only by the NIH, but also by the administrations of Bush and Bill Clinton. What's more, he says, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is part of the annual Appropriations Act, which lays out the budget for government agencies, and thus is re-approved by Congress each year. "Every year when Congress re-passes the Appropriations Act, it could have changed the language if it thought the interpretations were wrong," he explains.

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So far, it's not clear what the injunction will mean for researchers. The NIH has deferred comment on the case to the Department of Justice, which says it is currently reviewing the judge's ruling. "My firm hope is that either Lamberth or the DC [court] will stay the injunction pending appeal" and that such a stay will be expedited to take effect quickly, Greely adds.