Stem Cell Funds Under Question

Judge Issues Injunction Blocking Use of Federal Funds for Certain Types Of Stem Cell Research

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A preliminary injunction granted Monday by a federal judge blocked federal funds from being used for certain stem cell research, drawing widespread astonishment and possibly making the research more difficult to conduct at UC Berkeley.

Campus researchers and legal experts are unsure about how the ruling will apply and are uncertain about the consequences of the case, in which two researchers sued the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming that the use of federal funds for stem cell research violates the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

The amendment was a rider to the 1996 Balanced Budget Downpayment Act, which prohibited the use of federal funds for research in which human embryos are "destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses 'in utero'" under federal regulations that apply. The judge approved the plaintiffs' argument that the National Institutes of Health's research guidelines violate the amendment.

According to the ruling, the institutes produced the guidelines to establish eligibility requirements for which types of embryonic stem cells could be used for research funded by the institutes.

The institutes published the guidelines after President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that removed limitations to embryonic stem cell research previously implemented by President George W. Bush, who issued a policy statement in 2001 prohibiting federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells created for Regenerative Medicine and are unaffected by the ruling, Schekman said.

But he added that other investigators do rely on funding from the institutes, and it remains to be seen whether the ruling will rescind existing grants or if the ruling blocks only new grants.

Schekman said research is continuing for now.

"I can't imagine anybody here is going to suspend research," he said. "Most of the people here at Berkeley are supported at least in part with

money from (the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine). ... The immediate effect is likely to be nil. Going after the date of the policy statement. Randy Schekman, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and co-director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center, called the ruling "bizarre" and said its impact on stem cell research at UC Berkeley is uncertain.

Many investigators affiliated with the center conduct their research using funds from the California Institute forward, hard to say."

Ken Taymor, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy at UC Berkeley Law School, said the ruling is mired in uncertainty because the judge unexpectedly addressed broader questions, rather than focusing on just those surrounding Obama's orders versus Bush's orders and was vague in the explanation of how the ruling would actually be applied.

"There's a great deal of confusion as to what can and cannot be done between now and the time that there's a final decision," Taymor said.

According to Taymor, the ruling did not give guidance about which types of embryonic stem cells can be used and to what extent. He added that there is reason to believe the final ruling will not uphold this preliminary ruling. The date of final ruling could take months or years to be actualized. The Department of Health and Human Services, the defendant in the case, will likely present a stronger argument against the plaintiffs in the final case in order to preserve research on embryonic stem cells, Taymor said.

"The judge's decision, if it was widely adopted, could have very significant effects way beyond stem cell research," he said.


Cristian Macavei covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected]

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