WASHINGTON – Opponents of taxpayer-funded embryonic stem cell research lost a key round Friday in a federal appeals court ruling that gives support to the Obama administration’s expansion of the promising but disputed approach to finding disease cures.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that opponents are not likely to succeed in their lawsuit to stop federal financing of stem cell research and overturned a district judge’s order that would have blocked the funding.
The panel reversed an opinion issued last August by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who said the research likely violates the law against federal funding of embryo destruction.
Stem cells from embryos are believed to hold great promise for treating hard-to-treat illnesses or conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or spinal cord injuries. But the research itself remains controversial.
“I am delighted and relieved to learn of the decision,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “This is a momentous day — not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research.”
Opponents of the research object because the cells were obtained from destroyed human embryos. Though current research is using cells culled long ago, opponents also fear research success would spur new embryo destruction. Proponents say the research cells come mostly from extra embryos discarded anyway by fertility clinics.
A 1996 law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars in work that harms an embryo, so private money has been used to cull batches of the cells. Those batches can reproduce in lab dishes indefinitely, and the Obama administration issued rules permitting taxpayer dollars to be used in work on them through the National Institutes of Health.
The administration’s rules expanded the number of stem cell lines created with private money that federally funded scientists could research, up from the 21 that President George W. Bush had allowed to 91 and counting.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by two scientists who argued that Obama’s expansion jeopardized their ability to win government funding for research using adult stem cells – ones that have already matured to create specific types of tissues – because it will mean extra competition.
Samuel Casey, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, expressed some disappointment but no surprise at the ruling. He said they will ask the full appeals court to review it.
Lamberth, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, had issued a preliminary injunction in August to block the research while the case continued. The Obama administration immediately appealed and requested the order be stopped. The appeals court quickly ruled in September that the research could continue while they took up the case.
Their answer Friday was that Lamberth’s injunction would impose a substantial hardship on stem cell research funded by NIH, particularly because it would stop multiyear projects already under way. The appellate judges also noted that Congress has re-enacted the 1996 embryo-protection law, called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, year after year with the knowledge that the government has been funding embryonic stem cell research since 2001.
The prediction that the suit will fail came from a conservative panel – not an encouraging sign for proponents hoping it will ultimately survive. The majority opinion was written by Judge Douglas Ginsburg, nominated to the court by President Ronald Reagan, and supported by Judge Thomas Griffith, a nominee of President George W. Bush. The dissent came from Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, a nominee of President George H.W. Bush.