August 27, 2012

Appeals Court OKs Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The current legal challenge to federal funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research continues (hESC litigation has been in the courts for several years), and a new appellate ruling on the merits of the challenge has been issued by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that may already exist (from, e.g., in vitro fertilization) or be newly created. The funding challenge was brought by several adult stem cell scientists who argue that NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding for hESC research violates existing federal law which prohibits the use of federal monies for any research in which embryos are destroyed (see here). The prohibition is found in the Dickey-Wicker amendment, first enacted in 1996. Now, the D.C. Circuit has reviewed a lower court’s ruling that the NIH funding did not violate the law, and it has upheld that decision. This ruling allows those engaged in hESC research to continue, and anticipate future funding opportunities from NIH. However, an appeal of this decision is likely, but beyond that, the politics of hESC research are still volatile and subject to the views of the governing executive branch. In the shift from the Bush to the Obama administration in 2009, the federal funding ban on hESC research was reversed by Executive Order 13503, and NIH is free to make grants for hESC research. Although stem cell policy issues are not  prominent in this year’s presidential campaign, there are pronounced differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney’s positions on stem cell research (Obama supporting embryonic stem cell research, while Romney focusing only on adult stem cell research), such that a GOP victory would likely ensure a return to the Bush-era restrictions on federal funding, while a Democratic win will keep the current policy. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine that examined the political climate for stem cell policies reported that 62% of those in a 2011 Gallup poll supported hESC research, suggesting that national support for such research could legitimize a more stable funding policy that reflected existing political consensus. However, federal funding for hESC research, generally interpreted ideologically as related to views on abortion, is likely to remain a political football in the U.S., with consequences for the stability of research plans and general optimism about the future of such research in American science. That volatility is costly.

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