Yesterday's court decision temporarily blocking federal funding for work with human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) has left researchers working with the cells in a legal limbo as government lawyers decide how to respond.
Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a temporary injunction blocking the federal government from implementing the current National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines governing research with hESCs. In his 15-page ruling, Lamberth said that "ESC research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo." And because Congress for every year since 1996 has enacted the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prevents the government from funding "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed," the government cannot fund work with the cells.
The ruling came as part of a lawsuit filed a year ago by Christian groups opposed to embryo research. The U.S. District Court rejected the suit because it found the plaintiffs, including certain embryos listed with names, had no legal standing. But in June, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. reinstated the suit. The court found that two doctors on the suit, stem cell scientists James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, do have standing because NIH's stem cell guidelines harmed them by lessening their chance of receiving funding for work on adult stem cells.
Although the lawsuit was directed at the Obama Administration's rules for expanding funding for hESC research, Lamberth's opinion strongly suggests that funding under the Bush Administration was also illegal under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
It was unclear this morning whether researchers who had already received grant money to study hESCs—a total of $137 million in 2010—could continue their projects. NIH referred reporters to the Department of Justice; a Justice Department spokesperson said the department is reviewing the ruling and has no further comment.