WASHINGTON – The government may resume funding of embryonic stem cell research for now, an appeals court said Thursday, but the short-term approval may be of little help to research scientists caught in a legal battle that has just begun.
It is far from certain that scientists actually will continue to get federal money as they struggle to decide what to do with research that is hard to start and stop.
After U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary order barring the funding on Aug. 23, the National Institutes of Health suspended work on funding new research projects on embryonic stem cells. While NIH didn’t immediately comment Thursday on the temporary stay from the appeals court, the government’s process for approving these grants is unlikely to resume before a final court resolution.
With appeals, that could be many months off.
“No way this would be a scientific reprieve,” said Patrick Clemins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Scientists who already have received taxpayer money for stem cell experiments can continue their work until their dollars run out, but 22 projects that were due to get yearly checks in September were told after Lamberth’s order that they’d have to find other money. Most of the researchers have multiple sources of funding and are working now to separate what they can and can’t continue, Clemins said.
Medical researchers value stem cells because they are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body. Research eventually could lead to cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, they believe.
The Obama administration is asking the appeals court in Washington to strike down a preliminary injunction by Lamberth that blocked the funding. Lamberth left little doubt that he is inclined to issue a final order barring that funding, but he has yet to issue that ruling, which inevitably will set off a new round of appeals.
Lamberth concluded that those who challenged the government support had demonstrated a strong likelihood of success in their lawsuit. He said the clear intent of a law passed by Congress was to prohibit federal spending on research in which a human embryo is destroyed.
Lamberth rejected the administration’s request to let funding continue while it appealed his preliminary order, but the three-member appeals panel disagreed on Thursday. It is suspending Lamberth’s ruling for now.
The appeals judges cautioned that their three-paragraph order “should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits.”
“Nothing has really changed, because all issues are still out there and still unresolved,” said Dr. Norman Fost, who was on the National Academy of Sciences committee that wrote the first national guidelines on embryonic human stem cells.