Created by on 09/17/2010

 The National Institutes of Health (NIH) resumed funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research on September 10, 2010. The action by NIH came after a flurry of judicial activity that had parties on each side of the case filing a complicated series of procedural and substantive motions in both the Federal District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Shortly after Judge Royce C. Lamberth (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia) issued a preliminary injunction barring federal funding for hESC research on August 23rd, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appealed the decision and filed an emergency motion to stay, or suspend, the injunction pending the appeal. FASEB joined the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in submitting to the court an Amicus Curiae brief supporting HHS. The brief argued that allowing hESC research to go forward would prevent harm to both the scientific community and the many patients who are hopeful that it will deliver cures for their devastating diseases. While Judge Lamberth rejected a motion to stop the injunction, a temporary administrative suspension was granted on appeal, thereby lifting the funding ban. In issuing thetemporary stay, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit stated that its purpose “is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the emergency motion for stay and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion.”
With the funding ban lifted, NIH issued a statement indicating that it will resume intramural hESC research and continue with its consideration of grant applications that were frozen by the injunction. “We are pleased with the Court's interim ruling, which will allow promising stem cell research to continue while we present further arguments to the Court in the weeks to come,” NIH stated. Sally Rockey, PhD, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, instructed NIH institute and center directors to give priority to hESC research in making new and continuing awards. The return to “business as usual” at NIH with regard to hESC research may be short-lived, however: the appeals court will hear oral arguments on September 27th regarding whether or not to extend the stay. If the stay is not extended, federal funding for hESC research would once again grind to a halt.

Meanwhile, Judge Lamberth still has to make a decision on the merits of the case – that is, whether or not NIH funding of hESC research violates the Dickey-Wicker amendment. The amendment, which has been attached to the annual Labor-HHS appropriations bill every year since 1996, bars federal funding for research in which human embryos are destroyed. The two adult stem cell researchers who brought the suit against NIH recently filed a motion for a summary judgment, asking Judge Lamberth to decide the case without a court hearing. The judge has not yet ruled on this motion.

While the case winds its way through the courts, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been working on a “legislative fix” that would remove any question about the legality of federal funding for hESC research. For more on recent congressional activity related to hESC research, please see related stories in this newsletter (“Inside the Beltway Scoop” and “Senate Committee Explores Advances in Embryonic and Adult Stem Cell Research”)