American Society of Hematology

Court Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging NIH Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Published on: July 27, 2011

Earlier today, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit challenging federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Judge Lamberth’s decision follows nearly a year of court proceedings that left a cloud of uncertainty over the future of federally funded embryonic stem cell research.

In the first court decision in the case (Sherley v. Sebelius), Judge Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction on August 23, 2010, that prohibited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding embryonic stem cell research, saying such research violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos. In his decision, Judge Lamberth cited legislation passed by Congress in 1996, called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero." Previously, the Department of Health and Human Services had concluded that the NIH's support of embryonic stem cell research did not violate the amendment if the funds were used only for research involving the cells – not to procure them. Judge Lamberth’s ruling, however, rejected that distinction, citing the “unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding . . . all research in which an embryo is destroyed, not just the piece of research in which the embryo is destroyed.”

A ruling by the Court of Appeals in April 2011 vacated the injunction, stating that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was “ambiguous and the NIH seems reasonably to have concluded that, although Dickey-Wicker bars funding for the destructive act of deriving an embryonic stem cell from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which an embryonic stem cell will be used.” In briefs filed in June, the Department of Justice, representing the Obama Administration and the NIH, argued that the April 2011 Court of Appeals ruling, while technically limited to a preliminary injunction, was in fact broad enough in its interpretation of Dickey-Wicker to guide Judge Lamberth’s decision and rule in favor of the NIH, an argument ultimately supported by Judge Lamberth in today’s decision.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), an advocacy group supporting the use of regenerative medicine to cure disease, of which ASH is a member, released the following statement in support of this decision:

“We are elated at Judge Lamberth’s ruling in favor of the defendants in the case of Sherley v. Sebelius. This ensures the science will continue to move forward without the impediment of ideologically based challenges.

The ruling recognizes our view of the important role that embryonic stem cell research plays in the larger field of biomedical research, and, in fact, how it can inform other methods of research including adult stem cell research.

On behalf of the more than 100 million Americans who suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and other debilitating diseases and disorders, we are thrilled this important biomedical research can move forward and that the science will continue to get us closer to better treatments and cures.”

While there may be an appeal or additional action in the future by the plaintiffs, this is a very positive ruling for the Department of Justice and for embryonic stem cell research. If the plaintiffs choose to appeal this decision, they have 60 days in which to do so. In the meantime, federal funding continues to be available for human embryonic stem cell research and additional stem cell lines continue to be approved and added to the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.

ASH has been an active leader supporting stem cell research. The Society was one of the first physician organizations to support embryonic stem cell research, and ASH has issued a policy in support of all avenues of stem cell research. The Society strongly supports federal funding for all avenues of stem cell research under NIH federal research guidelines and with appropriate public oversight.

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