A court ruling yesterday has halted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The case is centered around a federal law which prevents the funding of research that involves the destruction of human embryos. This “Dickey-Wicker Amendment” has been part of the NIH funding since 1996, but since 1999 the government has interpreted the law as only applying to the creation of new cell lines, not the use of cells that are already made available. The case was brought by several groups, but all but two were removed from the case due to not having standing to sue because they weren’t directly harmed by the rule. The remaining plaintffs are Drs. James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, two researchers who work with adult stem cells who argued the additional competition for grants interferes with their work.
This ruling was only a preliminary injunction, meaning the funding is prevented while the judge is hearing the case, and isn’t necessarily the same result that will happen after he has heard evidence during the trial. However based on what I read from the ruling, I think the government lawyers may have a lot of convincing to do for the judge to rule in their favor.
The standards for an injunction to be put in place are 1. that the plaintiffs need to have a reasonable expectation that they could win, and 2. need to show irreparable harm would take place 3. without excessively burdening others affected by the ruling. For the first part the judge decided that there the creation of cell lines and the later use of those lines are all fundamentally the same part of research and Congress clearly meant to prevent funding of all aspects that involve the destruction of human embryos. This interpretation seems to prevent research under both the relaxed standards for funding President Obama put in place, as well as the stricter restrictions that were in place under President Bush. Given that this language has been included in funding bills for over ten years, it seems more reasonable that Congress didn’t object to this amendment not acting as a complete ban on funding embryonic stem cell research.
For the second and third aspects the judge decided that the plaintiffs legitimately argued that the funding of other projects could prevent them from receiving grants necessary for their work, while embryonic stem cell work could continue using private funding. I think the judge seriously underestimated the difficulties that would be associated with finding outside private funding and having to separate work that is funded from different sources. Apparently the NIH has decided this ruling doesn’t affect grants that have been paid out, however 22 grants that were previously funded won’t be eligible for renewal next month and an additional 60 were in the process of being reviewed that have to be set aside. This sudden change in funding situation will have serious consequences for how researcher will have to proceed.Even if private funding is available, it leads to researchers having to duplicate many resources if they still receive government funding for other types of work . In contrast Drs. Sherley and Deisher seem to be much less concretely affected by the potential for additional competition with other types of research. Furthermore, saying that other researchers can just go find private funding for their work with embryonic stem cells seems especially odd since the plaintiffs’ research was still eligible for federal funding and the same reasoning could lead to saying they could use other sources for funding if they don’t receive a grant.
The Obama administration has decided to appeal this injunction to continue being able to fund research. I will be interested in seeing how both that appeal and the final decision turn out.