In a Senate hearing today on the ongoing legal tussle over human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, lawmakers and expert witnesses lamented the
disruption to this promising research. Congress may have to act soon to fix the problem, two Democratic members said.
Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA) called the hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education in the wake
of the 23 August ruling by Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that hESC research violates a law barring federal
funds for research that harms human embryos. Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction that froze funding for hESC research at the National Institutes
of Health (NIH); last week, an appeals court lifted the ban temporarily, but it could soon be
in place again. The injunction "has placed a cloud of uncertainty over this entire scientific field," said Harkin.
The testimony began with a surprise last-minute witness: Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS), who co-authored the Dickey-Wicker Amendment barring federal funds
to study human embryos in 1996 when he was in the House of Representatives.
"The basic premise for the provision has not changed. ... The destruction of or cloning of human embryos for research purposes raises profound moral
and ethical challenges," Wicker said. He suggested that he agrees that his law applies to hESC research: "If [hESC] research is to be done at all, it
should be paid for with nontaxpayer funds," he said.
Others disagreed. NIH Director Francis Collins worried that hESC research "has been thrust into a precarious state" and warned that some scientists may
abandon their hESC work or move overseas to continue it. (Collins, an evangelical Christian, also explained how he reconciles his support for hESC
research with his beliefs: Although he thinks the human embryo "deserves moral respect," he balances that with the ethical benefits of using frozen
embryos from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded to help develop treatments for patients. "What is potential here justifies" federal
funding for hESC research, Collins said.)
hESC researchers George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston and Sean Morrison of the University of Michigan told the panel why research on other types
of stem cells, such as adult stem cells and so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), can't substitute for work on embryonic cells. They said
the Lamberth ruling has been particularly troubling for young scientists worried about their careers. Daley's lab has been acutely affected. A
seven-investigator grant comparing iPS and hES cells that he heads, which was up for renewal in September, was frozen by the ban; now that it is
lifted, he received his award letter on Monday. But he's still worried about a future shutdown, he says.
Senator Arlen Specter (D–PA), a longtime champion of stem cell research who introduced a bill to make hESC research legal on Monday, warned that the
outcome of the legal process "is very, very uncertain." He added that Congress "had better get busy."
Harkin is also working on a bill, but his staffers say they are also watching for a decision as soon as 24 September from the U.S. Appeals Court; if the court grants a more
permanent stay, it would make the situation less urgent.
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