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Court lifts ban on stem cell research funding
WASHINGTON, D.C.—On April 29, an appeals court rendered a verdict in a controversial case invoking the question of whether the United States federal government should provide funding to researchers engaged in human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research.
In the latest development in the case of Sherley, et. al., v. Sebelius, et al., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia's ruling sided with the Obama Administration in an ongoing debate over whether the U.S. government should help fund research that involves the destruction of embryos—which the plaintiffs in the case argued is a violation of congressional spending laws.
Specifically, the lead plaintiffs in the case—adult stem cell researchers Dr. James L. Sherley, a biological engineer at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Dr. Theresa Deisher, research and development director at AVM Biotechnology LLC in Seattle—alleged that an order signed last year by President Barack Obama which lifted a ban on federal funding for eSC research violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law that prohibits the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from using appropriated funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes, or for research in which human embryos are destroyed.
The plaintiffs further argued that Obama's order has intensified competition for the limited government dollars, making it more difficult for them to get funding for their own work.
Last August, federal district judge Royce Lamberth, finding merit in these arguments, temporarily brought federal funding for embryo-destructive research to a halt. A month later, the U.S. Court of Appeals temporarily suspended Lamberth's injunction until the case could be decided.
That decision reversed Lamberth's ruling, saying it would impose a substantial hardship on stem cell researchers who have multi-year projects already underway. The court's 2-1 decision also found that the funding of hESC research is permissible under Dickey-Wicker, as Congress has renewed the amendment every year with the knowledge that it funds such research.
The court's decision was not unanimous. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson called her colleagues' separation of the derivation of hESCs "linguistic jujitsu" and said the other judges "strain mightily to find the ambiguity the government presses."
The White House reacted swiftly to the decision: "Today's ruling is a victory for our scientists and patients around the world who stand to benefit from the groundbreaking medical research they're pursuing," said Nicholas Papas, a White House spokesman.
But while the court's decision green-lights once again the use of federal tax dollars for hESC research, it may not be the last word in this contentious debate, as the plaintiffs in the case can both continue their original case before Lamberth as well as appeal this ruling to the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court.