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Sherley v. Sebelius: Where do we go from here?
February 2013
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author

In the 1960s, McCulloch-Till discovered stem cells while studying the effect of radiation on the bone marrow of mice. In the 1980s, two groups of researchers derived embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos. In the 1990s, James Thomson developed a technique to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in a cell culture. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka successfully transformed human fibroblasts into pluripotent stem cells using four genes with a retroviral system.  
With each groundbreaking discovery, thousands of people—from the world's top scientists to average Joes—began to question some of the ethical, moral and social aspects of stem cell research, and in 1995, American lawmakers attempted to address those concerns in the form of Dickey-Wicker, an appropriations bill rider that prohibited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from using government funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes, or for research in which human embryos are destroyed. In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush issued an executive order restricting the use of federal funds for hESC research. A few years later, his successor, President Barack Obama, reversed that order.
Five decades into the stem cell era, this promising area of research is still very much under a cloud of uncertainty. So where do we go from here? In 2009, a pair of adult stem cell researchers sued the government over Obama's executive order in a controversial case that effectively reignited the debate over hESC research. After a four-year court battle, the case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which kicked off 2013 by declining to hear the case. And so, the uncertainty continues.
In our cover story, "End of the road for hESC opponents," we bring you this news, along with some very interesting interviews with the plaintiffs in Sherley v. Sebelius, adult stem cell researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, as well as their attorney, Samuel Casey, managing director and general counsel for the Law of Life Project. All three of these opinionated people have always been generous with ddn in granting us revealing interviews, and although they seem a bit fatigued by their long court volley, once more they did not hold back.  
"What we have going on right now with hESC research is the civil rights movement of the 21st century, a debate on whether science is going to enslave and manipulate the embryo," says Casey. "They are the new slaves. They are too small to vote. We are reopening the door on human subject experimentation, something that until now, only World War II closed the door on. I have spent the last 10 years trying to point out the truth, and this is where we today."
Casey says the plaintiffs won't continue to pursue their cause in court, and a legislative remedy or renewed examination of Dickey-Wicker may be needed to end the debate—"but ultimately, language is plastic and will be manipulated depending who has the political power," opines Casey.
"Obama is largely ruling on executive order now, because you can't get anything through Congress," he alleges. "It is a great disappointment to live in a country where a president's executive order can be deemed to abdicate your rights."  
For Sherley, his focus will be on his stance that human embryos are living human beings, and thus, the government should not be funding research that uses them.  
"The one thing I want—although I don't think he'd ever do it—is for [NIH Director] Francis Collins to come out, put his stake down and answer the question of whether human embryos are living human beings. If he says yes to that question, we should not be funding this research," says Sherley.  
Sherley, who has authored hundreds of op-eds and letters to lawmakers on the subject, says he is considering compiling them into a collection of writings.  
"I'd also love to get back into a university setting, where I can have a larger imprint on young minds, but I think that writing will be the best use of my time," says Sherley, who was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1998 to 2007. "Something I am interesting in writing is some scholarly work on what happened in Roe v. Wade. I think we have to go back and look at that decision as scientists. When we look at the case, there is no science in it. Our case was like that, too. When we are talking about hESC research, we are talking about abortion. We need to change the way we treat the unborn and embryos."  
No matter how the debate continues to play out, Deisher maintains that adult stem cell research will come out the victor.  
"It's not rocket science," says Deisher, who heads AVM Biotechnology, an adult stem cell research firm in Seattle. "hESCs form tumors, illicit immune rejection and are outrageously expensive. We need to inform the American people that adult stem cells are a better alternative. We can do this work without exploiting other humans."
Meanwhile, until scientists and the government can reach more of a common ground on the issue, you can read more about these individuals, their case and their cause on our website,, as well as our blog, We invite you to weigh in on the debate on our blog, because isn't it about time we get serious about it?



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