NIH Orders Immediate Shutdown of Intramural Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

Responding to a court order issued a week ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this morning ordered intramural researchers studying human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to shut down their experiments.

NIH's action—probably unprecedented in its history—is a response to a preliminary injunction on 23 August from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. The judge ruled that the Obama policy allowing NIH funding to be used to study hESC lines violates a law prohibiting the use of federal funds to destroy embryos.

According to a furious NIH staffer who read the e-mail to ScienceInsider over the telephone, this morning's message from NIH intramural research chief Michael Gottesman states: "HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] has determined that the recent preliminary injunction ... is applicable to the use of human embryonic stem cells in intramural research projects. In light of this determination, effective today, intramural scientists who use human ES cell lines should initiate procedures to terminate these projects. Procedures that will conserve and protect the research resources should be followed."

The agency has eight research projects that use hESCs, most if not all of which use lines approved under the Bush Administration, say NIH officials. It also has a unit that characterizes lines added to the NIH registry of approved hESC lines.

The shutdown is the first immediate halt to research since Lamberth issued the preliminary injunction. NIH Director Francis Collins has said that extramural researchers can continue their projects for now and that the injunction will affect only future grant payments. ("Intramural" means researchers in labs on the NIH campus; "extramural" refers to researchers at universities and other outside institutions who receive NIH grants.)But some biomedical research lobbyists worry that that interpretation of the ruling may have been too optimistic, and a shutdown of all ongoing NIH-funded hESC research could be imminent.

The Department of Justice is expected to ask the courts to stay the injunction as soon as today, an NIH source tells ScienceInsider. 

UPDATE, 30 August, 1:41 p.m.:

Below is the full text of the e-mail that an NIH staffer told ScienceInsider that he received this morning. "Today" actually refers to last Friday, 27 August.

HHS has determined that the recent preliminary injunction ordered by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the matter of Sherley v. Sebelius is applicable to the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in intramural research projects. In light of this determination, effective today August 27, 2010, all intramural scientists who use hESC lines should initiate procedures to terminate these projects. Procedures that will conserve and protect the research resources should be followed.

All intramural Principal Investigators using hESCs should succinctly describe what research will be terminated, provide the parent annual report number (if the project is associated with one from FY 2009 or before), and describe any alternate use of funds that will become available as a result of this action. This information should be sent to the IC SD and a copy should be sent to Dr. Michael Gottesman, Deputy Director for Intramural Research.

Please contact me if you have questions.

Michael Gottesman, M.D.

Deputy Director for Intramural Research, NIH

See our complete coverage of this issue.

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