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Federal judge allows stem-cell research to continue

By Bill Mears, CNN
  • Federally funded testing is aimed at addressing a range of diseases and illnesses
  • Opponents of stem-cell research say it is a moral issue because embryos are destroyed
  • The Obama administration issued rules in 2009 allowing research that had been halted to go ahead

Washington (CNN) -- A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday that tried to block funding of stem-cell research on human embryos.

A federal appeals court in April lifted a previous injunction on continued funding, and U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth has now agreed with the Obama administration that the lawsuit brought by two scientists should be dismissed.

The 38-page decision is a victory for supporters of federally funded testing for a range of diseases and illnesses.

The field of embryonic stem-cell research has been highly controversial, because in most cases the research process involves destroying the embryo, typically four or five days old, after removing stem cells. These cells are blank and can become any cell in the body. Because of the destruction of embryos, most opponents believe this is moral issue. Supporters of the research point to the potential for saving lives.

The White House applauded the decision.

"While we don't know exactly what stem cell research will yield, scientists believe this research could treat or cure diseases that affect millions of Americans every year," said Stephanie Cutter, a deputy senior advisor to the president. "That's why President Obama has long fought to support responsible stem-cell research."

Legislation passed in 1996 prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars in the creation or destruction of human embryos "for research purposes." Private money had been used to gather batches of the developing cells at U.S.-run labs.

The current administration had broken with the Bush White House and issued rules in 2009 permitting those cells to be reproduced in controlled conditions and for work on them to move forward.

Obama officials have been at odds with many members of Congress over whether the National Institutes of Health research actually causes an embryo's destruction, as prohibited by the Dickey-Wicker Act.

In opposing the lawsuit, the government had argued that an extensive list of research projects outlined by the government health research agency would have to be shelved if the courts blocked further funding.

The plaintiffs have the option of now taking their case back to the appeals court, and perhaps then to the U.S. Supreme Court for review on the larger constitutional questions.

Some scientists believe embryonic stem cells could help treat many diseases and disabilities because of their potential to develop into many different cell types in the body.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had lifted an injunction imposed last year by Lamberth, who said at the time all embryonic stem-cell research at the National Institutes of Health amounted to destruction of embryos, in violation of congressional spending laws. The three-judge appeals panel concluded that "the plaintiffs are unlikely to prevail because Dickey-Wicker is ambiguous and the NIH seems reasonably to have concluded" the law does not ban research using embryonic stem cells.

Taking that as his cue, Lamberth said the appeals court decision left him no choice but to dismiss the suit.

"The NIH reasonably interpreted the (Obama) executive order to demand new guidelines that would govern the funding of responsible and scientifically worthy embryonic stem-cell research projects, and had it adopted the views of the commentators who categorically objected to such funding and banned it altogether, its rule would have violated the law," Lamberth said.

The case began with a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health by scientists opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells, working with a group that seeks adoptive parents for human embryos created through in vitro fertilization, including the nonprofit Christian Medical Association.

Embryonic stem-cell research differs from other kinds of stem-cell research, which don't require embryos. The ruling does not deal with separate research on adult stem cells, which remains permissible under federal law.

When the injunction was first issued by Lamberth in August, Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, another of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said he supported adult stem-cell research that doesn't require destroying embryos.

"Frequently people will say, 'Why are you opposed to stem-cell research?' and of course our answer is, 'We're not,'" Stoddart said. "We're opposed to the destruction of the embryos to get embryo stem cells."

Some stem-cell scientists said Wednesday's ruling would offer a measure of certainty that such expensive research, often years in development, can continue.

"Much more work needs to be done to determine which kinds of stem cells will lead to future scientific and medical advances," said Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology. "This ruling also allows the NIH to continue funding research based on scientific merit rather than having courts influence the distribution of funds among scientific disciplines."

When President George Bush first approved federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research in 2001, 64 existing stem-cell lines that were created before August 9, 2001, qualified for federal funding. But of those, only 21 actually were usable for scientists. Bush later rescinded the funding.

Under the Obama administration's rules, at least 75 stem-cell lines qualify for federal funding, according to the National Institutes of Health.

NIH has invested more than $500 million in human embryonic stem-cell research.

Scientists conducting such research say continued federal funding is necessary, because they would have greater flexibility to work collaboratively within labs, across labs and around the world on the latest treatments and breakthroughs.

Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research say their studies have shown promise to treat a range of debilitating conditions including diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cancers, and spinal cord injuries.

The case is Sherley v. Sebelius (1:09-cv-1575).