Stem cell research in the United States was dealt a recent blow when a US district judge ruled that public funding for embryonic stem cell research violated federal law. Judge Royce Lamberth found that congressional statutes, which prohibited federal funding going to any research where embryos were destroyed, applied to research on embryo-derived stem cell lines. This is a surprise, as President Obama’s executive order on stem cells was thought to be a definitive opening of the field in the US. Now, stem cell scientists must scramble to determine which, if any, of their research must not use public funds in order to comply with the new ruling. Embryonic stem cells may be key to finding new treatments for painful and life threatening diseases and this decision may slow such research in the United States for years to come.
A single embryo’s stem cells can be replicated many times over, allowing each stem cell to generate a ‘line’ of cells that many different scientists can use in their research. For a time it was believed that research on pre-existing embryonic stem cell lines did not violate federal prohibitions on research that destroys embryos. As such, George W. Bush signed an executive order limiting public funding for exploration of embryonic stem cells to just 21 lines. Obama expanded that to 75 lines and opened up the possibility of new lines being created through parental consent. Both of these decisions are now in question.
The court case in question is a lawsuit filed by several parties against the federal government to stop public funding of embryonic stem cells. Those parties were led by the Alliance Defense Fund (a conservative Christian legal group) but included an adoption agency, embryos (on their behalf), and two scientists. Earlier court rulings required plaintiffs to have a clear material affect by the executive order, so all but the two scientists were stripped from the case. These two researchers, Dr. James Sherley of Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Dr. Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology, argued that the expansion of public funding for embryonic stem cells would increase competition and limit the funding for their adult stem cell research. Judge Lamberth agreed that there was a clear material consequence for public funding of embryonic stem cells on the two scientists, and further decided that the embryonic stem cell lines were still research that was based on the destruction of embryos. As such, he has blocked all further public funding of embryonic stem cells.
Why is this a problem? Embryonic stem cell research may hold the promise to all sorts of amazing treatments. They could repair spinal injury, grow new retinas, or treat diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Many felt that the restrictions put in place by George Bush in 2001 horribly damaged the state of US research in the field. Now, public funding could be even more limited in scope.
Yes, private funding for embryonic stem cells will still be there, but we still need public funding. Greater diversity of financing creates greater diversity in research. Public funds would also help research in to diseases whose cures would not be profitable.
You could also argue that research into adult stem cells has had proven successes and that we don’t need embryonic stem cell lines. It is unlikely, however, that adult stem cells will ever be able to replace embryonic stem cells in all forms of research. Just as we need a diversity in funding, we need a diversity in approaches. We need to explore both embryonic and adult stem cells to have the best chances of finding new treatments.
Judge Lamberth’s ruling may be detrimental to US scientific development, but it may also be a correct interpretation of federal law. Those interested in public funding for embryonic stem cell research may eventually need to champion new legislation to explicitly permit such experiments (legislatures may be working on such a bill now). Until that occurs we may be mired in executive orders, court battles, and public debates long after other nations have developed the science more fully. China, for example, has been advancing undisturbed in the field for years. Until the US makes up its mind about embryonic stem cells we are likely to continue falling further behind the global scientific community.