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US court victory for embryonic stem cell research

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A District Court judge in the US has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to ban federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. The decision, by Judge Royce Lambeth, is the latest development in the case of Sherley v Sebelius – a landmark lawsuit filed against the US’s state-funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2009.

The case was brought by two scientists, Dr James Sherley and Dr Theresa Deisher, who opposed changes to NIH guidelines that expanded hESC research following an executive order by President Barack Obama. This order eased restrictions on hESC research imposed by the previous President, George W. Bush, but the pair, who both work with adult stem cells, argued the new guidelines violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. This is a 1996 law which bars the use of federal funds for ‘research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed’.

Last year Judge Lambeth issued a preliminary injunction to suspend federal funded hESC research, but his decision was overturned after just 17 days by the Court of Appeals in Washington. In April, a majority ruling delivered by a three-judge panel found Judge Lambeth had ‘abused [the court’s] discretion’ when he issued the injunction. They found that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is ambiguous and that, although it bars funding for the destructive act of deriving hESCs from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which hESCs are used.

In a 38-page summary judgment issued this week, Judge Lambeth upheld the conclusions the Court of Appeals and acknowledged that it obliged him to rule in favour of the NIH. However, he wrote that by following the Court of Appeals’ decision, his court had ‘become a grudging partner in a bout of ‘linguistic jujitsu’.

Supporters of hESC research celebrated the outcome. Tony Mazzaschi, senior director of scientific affairs at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC, described it as a ‘great victory for patients and the researchers who are trying to help them’. Francis Collins, director of the NIH said in a statement: ‘We are pleased with today’s ruling. Responsible stem cell research has the potential to develop new treatments and ultimately save lives. This ruling will help ensure this groundbreaking research can continue to move forward’.

However, it remains possible that the plaintiffs will appeal this decision. Their lawyer, Stephen Aden of the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a statement that they were considering their legal options. He commented: ‘Americans should not be forced to pay for experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments and violate federal law’.

By Dr Rebecca Robey
Appeared in BioNews 618

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