On the third full day of the U.S. court ban on using federal money to study human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), the research community is worrying that the news could get worse. Government lawyers could decide that the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) message so far—that the ban only affects new grants—is incorrect. In fact, the ruling could mean that all NIH-funded hESC projects would have to stop immediately.
NIH e-mailed investigators yesterday to say that Based on comments made by NIH Director Francis Collins on Tuesday, some university administrators are assuming that those who have received an award notice this year can continue their research. But the agency has not yet issued a formal notice about the injunction in the NIH Guide, an online message board where the agency announces policy changes and funding programs.
According to sources in the biomedical research community, the funding methods complicate the decision: When NIH disburses a grant, it doesn't hand the money over to the researcher's institution. Instead, the Treasury has a special account that the institution draws down to pay an investigator's research project expenses. Technically, the money is held by the Treasury Department and is paid out gradually over the year.
That means the Department of Justice could decide that the ban applies to all ongoing hESC research funded by NIH—making the crisis a full-blown disaster. Observers are hoping NIH will relieve their concerns with a notice today affirming the earlier interpretation.
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*This item has been correct on 27 August. It incorrectly stated that NIH had e-mailed investigators on August 25 to say that those who have received an award notice this year can continue their research. The e-mail obtained by ScienceInsider was sent by a university administrator, not NIH.