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Court rules controversial stem cell research is legal

The federal government may continue to pay for controversial human embryonic stem cell research, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The three-judge panel says the government has correctly interpreted a law that bans the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos for research. The ruling is unlikely to put the issue to rest and one of the judges pleaded for Congress to make clear what the government should and should not be able to do.

The hard-to-understand case pits science against mostly religious arguments against using embryos in medical research. It's even more confusing because there are so many differenlt types of cells called stem cells.

Dr. James Sherley of Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, who both do research using adult stem cells and oppose the use of human embryonic stem cells, sued in 2009. They said federal guidelines violate the law and would harm their work by increasing competition for limited federal funding.

It’s been back and forth in the federal courts since then, and Sherley has vowed to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The embryonic stem cells at issue are the body’s master cells. Found in days-old embryos, they are the source of all the cells and tissues in the body – blood, brain, bone and muscle.  Researchers are studying them to investigate how disease develops and are using some as transplants to treat diseases from Parkinson’s to cancer. They are being tested in people to repair spinal cord injuries and as a possible cure for some forms of blindness.

Opponents of the research say it’s unacceptable to destroy a human embryo to get the cells. The 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment, added by Congress to budget language every year, forbids the use of federal funds in research that destroys embryos.

When he was president, George W. Bush decided that the ban extended to human embryonic stem-cell research and greatly limited the federal program.

As one of his first acts after he entered office, President Barack Obama issued an executive order reversing this and encouraging the National Institutes of Health to pay for embryonic stem-cell research, so long as federal money wasn’t used to directly make the stem cells. To get the cells, someone in a private lab using private money has to take apart the embryos – usually left over from fertility clinics and destined for the trash can.  Federal funds may be used to work with the cells that private labs make available.

On Friday, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, Judge David Bryan Sentelle, and Karen LeCraft Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upheld an earlier court ruling throwing out the case. The law, they said “permits federal funding of research projects that utilize already-derived embryonic stem cells—which are not themselves embryos—because no ‘human embryo or embryos are destroyed’ in such projects.”

 “As we have held before, the NIH interpretation of the statute’s actual language is reasonable,’ they added.

"NIH will continue to move forward, conducting and funding research in this very promising area of science. The ruling affirms our commitment to the patients afflicted by diseases that may one day be treatable using the results of this research," NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said in a statement. 

But Judge Brown wasn’t entirely happy and asked Congress to please clear up the unclear wording of the Dickey-Wicker amendment and saying  “there are aspects of this case that … should trouble the heart.”

“Given the weighty interests at stake in this encounter between science and ethics, relying on an increasingly Delphic, decade-old single paragraph rider on an appropriations bill hardly seems adequate,” she wrote in Friday’s opinion.

Supporters of the research said they were thrilled. “This ensures that America’s best scientists can continue to move this work forward despite ideologically driven attempts to derail it,” said Amy Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

There are other types of stem cells, including so-called adult stem cells, found in everyone's bodies. But scientists say they don't have the same powerful properties as embryonic stem cells. Labs are also working to re-program ordinary cells to behave like embryonic cells. A deeply divided Congress has decided not to weigh in on the issue until elections give one party or the other more power.