Latest Ruling Opens Stem Cell Research, But Experts Worry for the Long Term

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The former Congressman behind a 1996 law that prohibits the government from funding research that harms or destroys embryos say he is “gratified” by a recent federal judge’s ruling that current federal funding of embryonic stem cell studies violates that law.Jay Dickey served as a representative from Arkansas between 1993 to 2000, and co-wrote the law that has restricted embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. In August, federal judge Royce Lamberth called for a ban on further government funding in the field after noting that the grants violate the Dickey-Wicker amendment since embryos are destroyed in the process of generating embryonic stem cell lines. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) had been supporting such studies based on a 1999 government decision that embryonic stem cells were not embryos and therefore not covered by the amendment.

Lamberth’s ruling came as part of a lawsuit by two researchers who raised questions about the legality of federal funding of these studies. The plaintiffs work primarily with adult stem cells that are taken from existing cells, and they argued that when President Obama expanded federal funding in 2009 to include additional sources of human embryos from IVF clinics to be used for stem cell studies, they were irreparably harmed in competing for government grants. Lamberth had initially agreed and issued a temporary injunction freezing further government support of the field.

On Thursday the appellate court reversed that ban, and the Department of Justice is analyzing what that means. A spokesperson would not address whether the stay would allow the NIH to resume reviewing grants for studies in the field, or accept submissions for new proposals — all activities that had been put on hold. Lamberth’s injunction allowed only researchers with already approved federal grants to continue their work, at least until the grants ran out (most operate on a yearly basis); everything else was frozen. The appellate court decision may reverse that, at least while the appeals process works its way through the courts.

Dickey, for one, is satisfied with Lamberth’s interpretation of his amendment. Reached at his home in Pine Bluff, the now retired Congressman says “[Lamberth] understood what we were doing, what our intent was. I was pleased with his uptake [of the law].”

Dickey says his intention in writing the amendment, which he cleverly attached as a rider to the annual budget for NIH that Congress must approve each year — thus making it difficult to vote against the rider without voting against the agency’s appropriations — was to prevent government funds from being used to destroy embryos. “I wanted all those embryos to be used in some fashion, but I didn’t want federal funds to go to termination of the embryos,” he says. In the years since the law, known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, was passed, groups have promoted adoption of the embryos, most of which are created during in vitro fertilization and are no longer needed by the couples that created them. Instead of discarding them, scientists, and in particular stem cell scientists, have argued they should be used for research to find new treatments and potential cures for diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson’s. But pro life groups have opposed using the embryos in this way, since the process requires that they be destroyed.

“I realized that what we might be doing is creating an industry of creating embryos maybe for profit,” says Dickey. “That really bothered me, that people would be paying other people to have the embryos created.” He admitted to having no issue, however, with using private funds to create embryos for whatever purpose people desired, citing privacy arguments and exposing a self-acknowledged inconsistency in his positions. “Whatever we do privately, the government shouldn’t come in and try to control it,” he says. “The government shouldn’t be the instigator in any way of moral values even though we do it all the time,” he says before pausing. “There is inconsistency there on my part,” he admits.

When pressed, he conceded that if he were in Congress today, he would probably vote more consistently with his beliefs against abortion and support banning embryonic stem cell research altogether, since it requires the destruction of human embryos. He says he realized that such an extreme position would have made it nearly impossible to pass his legislation back in 1996, however (indeed, several attempts by Senator Brownback to pass a ban on cloning that would have included some forms of stem cell research have failed to garner enough votes), so the end result was an amendment that focused only on prohibiting use of federal funds to finance embryonic stem cell studies.

For scientists in the field, the continuing political and legislative see-sawing only highlights the need for codifying support of the emerging field with a law. “I am warming up to the conclusion that the only proper solution will be to have a legislative one,” says Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. At the moment, the field exists on the strength of President Obama’s Executive order allowing excess IVF embryos that meet proper ethical guidelines to be used for embryonic stem cell studies. But presidential orders are not laws and can be overridden by Congress, and the Dickey-Wicker amendment is, after all, a Congressional law.

Lamberth’s ruling has pushed stem cell science, some experts say, even further back from where it was under the Bush administration, when only a couple dozen human embryonic stem cell lines were eligible for federal funding. Lamberth, with his strict interpretation of Dickey-Wicker, ruled that no human embryonic stem cell lines would be considered for studying using taxpayer money.

Even with the respite created by the appeals court decision, Melton says the uncertainty in the field could be devastating, not just to the progress of current experiments, but to nurturing the next generation of talent in the field. When a postdoctoral fellow with a pending grant received a letter from the NIH informing him that his proposed study could not be reviewed, Melton says, “I didn’t know what to tell him. I certainly told him don’t give up, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the immediate future.” Without the grant, says Melton, his student will have a more challenging time finding the faculty position he would need to launch his career.

For Melton’s part, the legal confusion only means more time spent dividing up his lab — from equipment to personnel — into government-approved and non-government-approved sections. Any use of government funds for human embryonic stem cell work could be grounds for legal and financial sanctions that could not only put his own laboratory in danger of shutting down, but put the university at risk of losing its chunk of federal research support as well. “I’m back to spending a lot of administration time on segregation — administrative and financial segregation — that takes me away from thinking about experimental results and designing experiments,” he says. It’s something he thought he had put behind him after President Obama expanded government support of the field. But with the latest law suit, it looks like those administrative tasks won’t be coming to an end any time soon.