Judge Dismisses Case That Challenged Stem Cell Research

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A human stem cell colony, which is no more than 1mm wide and comprises thousands of individual stem cells, grows on mouse embryonic fibroblast in a research laboratory

After a year of legal uncertainty, a federal judge ruled that U.S. taxpayer dollars can be used to support research on embryonic stem cells.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed a law suit brought by two scientists challenging the federal government’s ability to fund human embryonic stem cell studies. In 2009, President Obama had lifted a restriction that President George Bush had placed in 2001 on government support of such research. The two scientists claimed, among other things, that the studies violated a 1996 law that prevented federal money from being used toward any work that harms or destroys embryos. In order to extract embryonic stem cells, embryos (usually ones that are discarded after IVF and donated for research) are destroyed.

But in an appeal filed by the Obama administration, officials relied on a legal analysis conducted by the general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services soon after the law, known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, passed. In that assessment, the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency primarily responsible for overseeing medical research, determined that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was vague in its definition of research, and that embryonic stem cells were not included in the law’s scope.

Judge Lamberth had originally ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, calling for a halt on NIH’s embryonic stem cell research program, which many scientists see as the key to finding new treatments for diseases such as spinal cord injury, diabetes and Parkinson’s. After the government appealed, the ban was lifted, and NIH was allowed to continue financing embryonic stem cell studies while the case remained open.

In making his current ruling, Judge Lamberth agreed with the appeals court, and dismissed the case, noting that “This Court, following the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning and conclusions, must find that defendants reasonably interpreted the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to permit funding for human embryonic stem cell research because such research is not ‘research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.’”

“[The ruling] ensures the science will continue to move forward without the impediment of ideologically based challenges,” said Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, in a statement.

The decision lifts a legal cloud that has been darkening the otherwise promising field of stem cell research, highlighting how ethically contentious any research on embryonic tissue remains for some of the Americans. While scientists now have other ways of obtaining stem cells, which can be studied and manipulated to turn into different body tissues, embryonic stem cells remain the gold standard for understanding both healthy and disease states. So the dismissal is key to nurturing the field. “This ruling allows the NIH to continue funding research based on scientific merit rather than having courts influence the distribution of funds among scientific disciplines,” said Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, in a statement. “It remains important to pursue all forms of stem cell research, including both embryonic and adult stem cell research.”