Battle over human embryonic stem cell research in U.S.

26 August 2010

Confusion over government-funded human embryonic stem (HES) cell research in the U.S. has arisen after a federal judge blocked the 2009 executive order put in place by president Barack Obama (see previous news). This directive had lifted earlier restrictions on federal funding for HES cell research and stimulated a rapid expansion in the availability of stem cell lines for public sector scientists (see previous news). However, the Chief Judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia found that the presidential directive contradicted a legal ban on the use of federal money for the destruction of embryos, and placed a temporary injunction to suspend it (see New York Times article).

The Dickey-Wicker law is an amendment to the annual federal financial allocation, which has been in place since 1996; previous administrations (including that of president George Bush) all chose to interpret this as meaning that federal funding of HES cell research was acceptable provided that the original creation of the HES cell lines (involving the destruction of embryos) was privately financed. However, Judge Lamberth ruled that this distinction was invalid.
The implications for such research in the U.S. public sector are not clear, although if taken to the logical conclusion it could imply that technically, no federally funded research activities that involve any HES cell lines can legally proceed. Certainly, no new funding for such research can be awarded until the issue is resolved.
Scientists have expressed dismay at the situation, but opponents of HES cell research (including the parties who brought the legal action against the executive order) were delighted, saying that forms of research that do not involve the destruction of human embryos should be favoured instead. However, the battle between opposing factions continues, as plans to launch another legal challenge in the form of an appeal against the injunction were announced by the U.S. Justice Department, which is also seeking suspension of the injunction pending the appeal process (see Wall Street Journal). Another possibility is removal of the Dickey-Wicker clause.
Comment: It may be as well if the US can move to a more transparent legal and funding situation with respect to HES cell research; certainly, politicians from different parties seem to have been somewhat disingenuous in their conclusions. The problem is that any administration has an unenviable struggle they try to balance the opposing demands for scientific and medical progress on the one hand with those for ethically acceptable practices on the other. There is one group certain to benefit, though: the lawyers.

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