The biomedical research community is elated by today's federal court decision to throw out a lawsuit that threatened to shut down federally funded research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, who earlier had ruled against the National Institutes of Health, this time came down on NIH's side in several key arguments in the case.
The plaintiffs expect to appeal, and could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. But their chances seem slim given that the 38-page opinion strongly favors NIH, say some who have read it. "This was a pretty slam dunk decision even though Lamberth clearly did it a bit grudgingly," says Anthony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. "They can keep some uncertainty alive for another 2 to 3 years, but [their suit] is on life support," says Stanford University law professor Hank Greely.
Harvard Medical School stem cell researcher George Daley is more cautious. "I hope we're done for now, but nothing surprises me anymore," Daley says.
The suit, Sherley v. Sebelius, was filed in 2009 by groups that included two scientists who study adult stem cells. They argued that NIH's July guidelines implementing an order from President Barack Obama to lift limits on hESC research violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law that prohibits federal funding for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed."
In an early ruling, Lamberth concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to win. He issued a preliminary injunction in August 2010 that briefly halted NIH funding for hESC research before an appeals court stayed the injunction. But that court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a 2-1 decision in April overturned the preliminary injunction, allowing research to continue until Lamberth ruled on the merits of the underlying case.
And this time, Lamberth has sided with NIH. Much of his decision rests on deference to the appeals court's finding that NIH can interpret Dickey-Wicker to allow funding for research on hESCs but not on their derivation because the definition of "research" in the law is ambiguous. "Absent a compelling reason to depart from that holding, the Court is constrained to adopt it at this stage of the proceedings," the opinion says.