Court reverses stem cell ruling

Permits funding of research using human embryos

By Liz Kowalczyk
Globe Staff / April 30, 2011

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The Obama administration can continue to fund research that uses human embryonic stem cells, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday, ending months of uncertainty for scientists.

The ruling from the US Court of Appeals in Washington reverses a lower court’s injunction that had halted new federal funding for several weeks last year.

“I am pretty excited about it,’’ said Dr. Leonard Zon, director of the stem cell program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “The issue when you’re a stem cell researcher is, there’s a certain level of uncertainty about whether the governmental and legal mechanisms will be in place so you can fund your research. This is not the final word but an indirect way of saying the case probably has little merit.’’

The White House released a statement praising the decision, as did the National Institutes of Health.

“This is a momentous day — not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research,’’ the NIH director, Dr. Francis S. Collins, said in a prepared statement.

The ruling is the latest twist in what many predict will be a legal battle over embryonic stem cell research that could continue for months, if not longer.

The initial lawsuit was brought by Dr. James L. Sherley, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher and senior scientist at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Watertown, and others who oppose stem cell research. The federal judge handling the case can now decide the broader legal questions in the case.

Sherley did not return a call from the Globe. But Samuel B. Casey, general counsel for Advocates International, part of the plaintiffs’ legal team, said his clients plan to proceed with their case. They believe using taxpayer money for experiments that, in their view, destroy human life, violates federal law.

They also argue that Sherley and others who study less controversial adult stem cells would be harmed because of the competition for federal funds that would be stoked by expansion of research into embryonic stem cells.

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction last August, halting funding. In response, the NIH decided to temporarily stop funding new grants or renewing existing grants, but said scientists who had already received grants could continue their embryonic stem cell research.

The US Justice Department appealed the injunction, and Collins warned that if the decision was upheld, it would jeopardize a fast-moving area of science that offers potential treatments for spinal cord injury, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as help in screening new drugs.

Several weeks later, the appeals court temporarily allowed federally funded embryonic stem cell research to resume. Yesterday was its final ruling.

The Obama administration has attempted to walk a scientific and moral tightrope in its regulations, which allow scientists to work only with stem cells derived from donated embryos. The donors must give their explicit permission for scientific use of the embryos, typically stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics.

The two appeals court judges who wrote the majority opinion — one of three judges dissented — said they felt the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail in their argument that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research violates a 1996 law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

The judges said Dickey-Wicker is ambiguous, and while it bars funding for the “destructive act of deriving’’ an embryonic stem cell from an embryo, “it does not prohibit funding a research project’’ in which stem cells are used.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at