Update on US embryonic stem cell legal disputes

3 July 2011

A US politician has reintroduced a bill to codify President Barack Obama’s 2009 policy to ease restrictions on federally funded research using human embryonic stem (HES) cells (see previous news). The bill, which in previous forms has passed Congress but was vetoed by the former President George Bush, is supportive of HES cell research. It would formalise the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stem cell research guidelines, and require regular review in the light of scientific progress.
However, the bill is likely to meet with fierce opposition. Even if passed, it would not solve the ongoing legal conflict over interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker law that prohibits federal funding for research that involves the destruction of embryos. This involved an injunction against all such research that was subsequently lifted (see previous news). However, another legal challenge is now underway, Sherley et al. v. Sebelius, in which adult stem cell researchers are claiming that government funding for HES cell research effectively creates a financial incentive for the destruction of more human embryos by increasing demand for HES cell lines.

Comment: Will this legal wrangling over embryonic stem cell research never end? Clearly, public opinion in the US is sharply divided between the potential medical benefits of HES cell research for patients with serious diseases, and the ethical concerns over the use of human embryos – both very important and valid drivers. Rapid progress towards useful therapeutics from the field of adult stem cell research would provide a welcome resolution to this dilemma, but until or unless this happens then the arguments are likely to continue. 

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