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Judge halts embryonic stem cell research federal funding

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge suspended funding of embryonic stem cell research by the Obama administration Aug. 23.

Royce Lamberth, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, issued a preliminary injunction blocking the continued application of last year’s federal guidelines governing grants for research on stem cells taken from human embryos. The ruling means federal funds will not be provided for such experiments while the case proceeds in court.

In issuing the injunction, Lamberth found the guidelines published in 2009 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) violated a law that prohibits federal funds for research in which a human embryo is destroyed. The ability of stem cells to convert to other cells and tissues has provided great hope for developing cures for various diseases, but extracting stem cells from an embryo results in the destruction of the days-old human being. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research note that the research has yet to provide any treatment for human beings. They also say federal funding should concentrate on alternatives they say are more promising: adult stem cell research and induced pluriponent stem cell research, neither of which involves embryos. “Pluriponent” means a stem cell theoretically can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent.

“I am delighted this judge has made this decision upholding the rule of law as passed by the Congress of the United States, the people’s elected representatives,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “The Obama administration ignored the clear intent of this legislation in order to use taxpayers’ dollars in the killing of unborn babies in pursuit of medical research.”

Steven Aden, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a written release, “The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments — prohibited by federal law — that destroy human life. The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos. No one should be allowed to decide that an innocent life is worthless.”

The Alliance Defense Fund is co-counsel in the case, helping represent those bringing the lawsuit.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), a leading proponent of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), criticized the decision.

CAMR President Lisa Hughes said in a written statement that the injunction “is a blow to the hopes of millions of patients and their families suffering from fatal and chronic diseases and disorders…. We are disappointed [the judge] issued a preliminary injunction in response to the latest maneuver by an ideologically driven fringe group.”

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment — an annual, spending bill rider that was first approved in 1996 — says federal funds shall not be used for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero” under a related law.

Lamberth rejected arguments by lawyers for the administration that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is ambiguous and permits federal funding for research on stem cells after they have been removed from embryos. The amendment only bars funding for the “piece of research” in which the embryo is destroyed, they contended.

The law does not permit such an interpretation, Lamberth said.

“Rather, the language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” he wrote. “This prohibition encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed.”

Lamberth said, “Because ESC research requires the derivation of ESCs, ESC research is research in which an embryo is destroyed.”

The judge granted the injunction because 1) he determined the lawsuit had “a strong likelihood” of succeeding, 2) two of the parties bringing suit faced “irreparable harm” from the guidelines, 3) those parties’ injury is real and not speculative, and 4) it is in the “public interest.”

President Obama overturned by executive order in March 2009 a prohibition instituted by President Bush on federal funding of stem cell research that results in the destruction of embryos. Bush’s 2001 order permitted, however, grants for experiments on stem cell lines, or colonies, already in existence at the time of his action.

NIH’s final guidelines, issued in July 2009, allowed funding for research on stem cells derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization but not used. The embryos had to be donated by their parents who underwent the fertility treatments.

Lamberth initially dismissed the lawsuit. He ruled in October the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring suit. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled two of the plaintiffs — adult stem cell researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher — had standing because they were competitors for federal funds for their research. The case returned to Lamberth’s court.

The other plaintiffs in the case include the Christian Medical Association, Nightlight Christian Adoptions and two couples seeking to adopt frozen embryos. Nightlight is known for its role in helping couples adopt “snowflake” babies, embryos that are in frozen storage because they were not implanted after in vitro fertilization.

Although embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce any treatments, trials using stem cells from adult sources have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, despite the fact such cells are not considered pluripotent, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Trials with adult stem cells have provided treatments for such afflictions as cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, Do No Harm has reported. Extracting adult stem cells does not harm the donor.

Another method of stem cell research has generated a great deal of interest in recent years among scientists and produced promising results. Researchers have been able to convert adult cells into cells that have virtually the identical properties of embryonic ones. Such cells are labeled induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

“The sad thing about all of this is embryonic stem cell research has been made virtually obsolete by the invention of the induced pluripotent stem cells for a source of embryonic stem cells,” the ERLC’s Land told Baptist Press. “Induced pluripotent stem cells allow medical researchers to take stem cells from adults and cause them to regress to their embryonic, undifferentiated state, thus providing all the advantages of embryonic stem cell research without having to kill unborn babies. Why the Obama administration continues to pursue federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is a mystery, even to many within the medical profession.”

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ yearly spending bill, is named after its lead sponsors, former Republican Reps. Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker is now a member of the Senate.

The case is Sherley v. Sebelius.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Read a Q&A about stem cell research at http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=30032.