For people waiting for cures, the wait just got longer as embryonic stem cell research in the United States takes a step backward.
Researchers value embryonic stem cells for their ability to morph into any cell of the body, with the potential for better treatments or even cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis, as well as spinal cord injuries. Embryonic stem cell research comes with no guarantees, but without extensive research, the potential will remain unknown.
As Care2’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote yesterday, U.S. district judge Royce C. Lamberth granted a preliminary injunction to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It is a battle that has been raging for years and there is little doubt that the Obama administration will appeal.
Candidate Barack Obama ran on a promise to lift the barriers put in place by President George W. Bush in 2001. He fulfilled that promise with his signature on an executive order in March 2009.
Later that year, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued strict guidelines allowing for the use of embryonic stem cells from human embryos created at in vitro fertilization clinics. The clinics generally create more embryos than are needed and are left with embryos that are often discarded.
Federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars to destroy a human embryo. Once they are created, though, these stem cell lines can reproduce in the lab. What the President’s executive order did was to increase the number of lines that federally funded researchers could use from 21 to 75.
The NIH rules specified that couples who donated the original embryo did so voluntarily and were informed of their options. Federal money could still be used if the embryonic stem cells were obtained with private money.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research contend that life begins as soon as an egg is fertilized, thus making an embryo a human being. In order to obtain embryonic stem cells, the embryo must be destroyed.
The victory for embryonic stem cell advocates was short-lived when Judge Lamberth ruled that taxpayer dollars cannot be used on research on stem cells even if the embryos they came from had been destroyed years before, going even further than the restrictions put in place by President Bush.
Dedicated researchers, for a short time, were free to concentrate on the task at hand in an effort to advance our knowledge and understanding of embryonic stem cells and to unlock their full capabilities.
While we await word on how the Obama administration will proceed, it is unclear how this decision will impact research already underway, or the dedicated researchers who have been thrust into a legal quagmire.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Democrats in Congress are already considering action on the issue, with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health Committee and an Appropriations subcommittee that funds medical research, saying he will hold hearings on the issue as soon as the Senate returns from summer recess.
When President Obama signed the executive order, former first lady Nancy Reagan, who became a supporter of stem cell research after former President Ronald Reagan passed away after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said
“These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward. Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases — and soon.”
For now, at least, the federal funding that propels this research forward is gone. Researchers who rely on NIH grants now find themselves in limbo. Patients, families, and caregivers must keep on waiting.
Judge Lamberth’s ruling is a major setback for stem cell advocates and will seriously disrupt the advancement of this important scientific research in the U.S.
The march toward cures for life-threatening diseases will slow its pace once again.
Update: August 24: The New York Times reports that the Obama administration said it will appeal the ruling and that experiments already under way could continue.
If the ruling stands, however, funding for 22 experiments will be suspended by the end of September, and another 60 projects will be jeopardized.