A US district court issued a preliminary injunction on Monday stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, in a slap to US President Barack Obama’s administration’s new guidelines on the sensitive issue.
US District Judge Royce Lamberth granted the injunction because he found that the doctors who challenged the policy would likely succeed because US law blocked federal funding of embryonic stem cell research if the embryos were destroyed.
“[Embryonic stem cell] research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote in a 15-page ruling. The Obama administration could appeal his decision or try to rewrite the guidelines to comply with US law.
The suit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH), backed by some Christian groups opposed to embryo research, had argued the administration’s policy violated US law and took funds from researchers seeking to work with adult stem cells.
A US Justice Department spokeswoman said the administration was reviewing Lamberth’s decision and declined further comment. The White House and NIH deferred comment to the Justice Department.
Key to the case is the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which Congress adds to budget legislation every year. It bans the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.
That was not an issue for the NIH until the discovery of human embryonic stem cells in 1998. In 2001, then-US president George W. Bush said he could only allow federal research money to pay for work done using a few batches of the cells.
Many stem cell researchers objected, saying they could not do work needed to fulfill the promise of the powerful cells, which can give rise to all the tissues and cells in the human body. Privately funded researchers may do as they please, but federal funding is the cornerstone of such basic biological research.
As one of his first acts after taking office, Obama overturned that decision and the NIH set up a careful process for deciding which batches of human embryonic stem cells could be used by federally funded researchers.
The new guidelines do not allow the use of federal funds to create the stem cells, but do allow researchers to work with them if they are made by another lab.
James Sherley of Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of Washington-based AVM Biotechnology, who both work with adult stem cells and oppose the use of human embryonic stem cells, filed the original suit saying the guidelines violated the law and would harm their work by increasing competition for limited federal funding.
“The Obama administration has attempted to skirt the law by arguing that they are only funding research after the embryos are destroyed,” said Charmaine Yoest, head of the Americans United for Life group. “Today’s sensible ruling reconfirms what we already knew, that administration policy is in violation of the law.”
However, Lisa Hughes, president of The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, called such opinions “ideologically driven.”
“Today’s Federal District Court injunction halting federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research is a blow to the hopes of millions of patients and their families suffering from fatal and chronic diseases and disorders,” she said in a statement.
Lamberth said the injunction would not seriously harm researchers who focus on human embryonic stem cells because it would preserve the status quo and not interfere with their ability to get private funding.