Human embryonic stem cell research: Court victory, but challenges remain

We are pleased to welcome guest blogger Melinda Abelman, MSc, CIP, Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight manager at Partners HealthCare System, to Ampersand. Below, Ms. Abelman shares her view on the most recent federal decision regarding stem cell research.

As the embryonic stem cell research oversight (ESCRO) manager for an academic institution, I routinely monitor local, national, and international developments in the field. Last week, a United States Court of Appeals decision was heralded as a victory for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) researchers who wish to pursue this research. While good news, some legal hurdles remain.
To understand the significance of this ruling, some background is helpful.

  • In August 2010, two researchers working with adult stem cells filed a lawsuit alleging that the current National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy that allows use of federal money for hESC research violates the 1996 law against using federal funds for the destruction or harming of human embryos.
  • Current NIH guidelines allow taxpayers’ dollars to be spent for research use of hESCs that have been derived from in-vitro fertilization embryos in excess of clinical need, but do not allow federal funding for the destruction of embryos to obtain the hESCs.
  • This lawsuit went to a US district court judge who agreed and issued an injunction to halt NIH funding for hESC research pending a decision on the case.
  • In September 2010, a temporary stay was placed on the injunction which allowed NIH to continue funding this research as two lawsuits proceeded through the courts: (1) the original suit brought forward by the researchers, and (2) the appeal by the US Department of Justice to reverse the injunction.

On April 29, 2011, a three-judge appeals court panel permanently lifted the injunction in a 2-1 vote. The majority opinion stated that the law is ambiguous and the NIH’s interpretation is reasonable. The dissenting opinion asserted that the federal law is clear about banning funding for hESC research and that the court majority is using “linguistic jujitsu” to justify its position.

While the decision is good news for academic researchers that rely on federal funding, I am cautious in my optimism. It is still uncertain how the original lawsuit will proceed. In addition, as long as the current law banning federal funding for the destruction or harm of embryos is in effect, there will be those who will attempt to challenge the current federal approach to hESC research. To lay this issue to rest, a legislative fix is needed.

In a recent article, pioneering stem cell researcher, Dr. Alan Trouson, was cautious as well. His response to the news: “While this recent Court of Appeals decision is very welcome, it is simply one step toward US researchers being able to feel they can proceed with this groundbreaking research.”