The Stem Cell Fight Begins Anew, A Return To 2001 For Me And You

Gardiner Harris at NYT:

A federal district judge on Monday blocked President Obama’s 2009 executive order that expanded embryonic stem cell research, saying it violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos.

The ruling came as a shock to scientists at the National Institutes of Health and at universities across the country, which had viewed the Obama administration’s new policy and the grants provided under it as settled law. Scientists scrambled Monday evening to assess the ruling’s immediate impact on their work.

“I have had to tell everyone in my lab that when they feed their cells tomorrow morning, they better use media that has not been funded by the federal government,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, referring to food given to cells. “This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order.”

In his ruling, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that his temporary injunction returned federal policy to the “status quo,” but few officials, scientists or lawyers in the case were sure Monday night what that meant.

Dr. Daley was among those who said they believed that it meant that work financed under the new rules had to stop immediately; others said it meant that the health institutes had to use Bush administration rules for future grants.

Steven H. Aden, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which sued to stop the Obama administration rules, said the judge’s ruling “means that for now the N.I.H. cannot issue funding grants to embryonic stem cell research projects without any further order from the court.”

Officials at the health institutes said that lawyers at the Department of Justice would interpret the ruling for them. Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, wrote in an e-mail, “We’re reviewing the decision.”

The judge ruled that the Obama administration’s policy was illegal because the administration’s distinction between work that leads to the destruction of embryos — which cannot be financed by the federal government under the current policy — and the financing of work using stem cells created through embryonic destruction was meaningless. In his ruling, he referred to embryonic stem cell research as E.S.C.

“If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an E.S.C. research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding,” wrote Judge Lamberth, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.

Joe Carter at First Things:

The issue of research involving stem cells derived from human embryos is back in the news after a federal judge clarified that the government cannot use federal funds for such immoral research. Although the debate has been ongoing for almost ten years, the complexity of the issue and the peculiar terminology used often prevents many citizens from developing a fully informed opinion on the matter. To help, in some small way, redress that problem, I’ve compiled a brief primer, a “least you need to know” guide, that helps clarify and explain the questions most frequently asked about stem cell policy.

To those unfamiliar with the topic, this should provide brief non-technical answers to many of the important questions surrounding the policy. For those who are well versed in the controversy, I hope this will be a useful reference source to help you explain the issue to others.

What are stem cells?

The term stem cells refers to a diverse group of primitive cells that are themselves relatively undifferentiated and unspecialized. These cells are multipotent, meaning they can give rise to several other differentiated and specialized cells of the body (for example, liver cells, kidney cells, brain cells). All specialized cells arise originally from stem cells, and ultimately from a small number of embryonic cells that appear during the first few days of human development.

How are stem cells different than other types of cells?

Stem cells have two unique characteristics: (1) an almost unlimited capacity for self-renewal (they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells for as long as the person is alive) and (2) they retain the potential to produce differentiated and specialized cell types. As stem cells within a developing human embryo differentiate within the cell, their capacity to diversify generally becomes more limited and their ability to generate many differentiated cell types also becomes more restricted.

Why are stem cells so important to research?

Stem cells are of interest to both scientific and medical research. First, stem cells provide a valuable tool for studying both normal and abnormal cellular processes. By learning how stem cells differentiate and become specialized, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how cells in general work and what can go wrong. Second, stem cells may prove to be an indispensable source of transplantable cells and tissues for repair and regeneration. If stem cells can used to produce new and differentiated cells that are damaged because of disease (e.g., Parkinsons) or injury (e.g., spinal cord damage), it would transform regenerative medicine.

What are embryonic stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are stem cells taken from from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, a preimplantation embryo of about 150 cells. (Embryos are humans in the stage of development between fertilization and the end of the eighth week of gestation whereupon it it referred to as a fetus until the time of birth.)

Where do the embryos for ESC come from?

Currently, all embryonic stem cell lines have been derived from “spare” embryos created from in vitro fertilization (IVF) (i.e., embryos that have been conceived by a combination of egg and sperm occurring outside the body). However, because there are not enough embryos in existence to carry out the research, some scientists have been pushing for the use of human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) to create the embryos that will then be killed and harvested for their cells.

What are adult stem cells?

The term adult stem cells simply refers to any non-embryonic stem cell, whether taken from a fetus, a child, or an adult. Adult stem cells are also referred to as somatic stem cells.

What is a stem cell “line”?

A stem cell line is a stem cell culture that can be grown indefinitely in the laboratory.

Why is there a controversy over ESC research?

The process of obtaining stem cells leads to the destruction of the human embryo from which the cells are taken. For those who believe that life begins at conception, embryo destruction is immoral even when it leads to beneficial research. Even those who do not believe that human embryos are deserving of full moral status worry about what the effects of normalizing such practices may have on society.

Advocates of ESC research, however, argue that it is unethical to impede potential advances that could heal disease and relieve the suffering of fully developed human beings. They believe that the moral status of a 150-to-200-cell early human embryo should not take precedence over scientific inquiry.

Didn’t the Bush administration ban funding of ESC?

No, but the Congress implemented its own ban. In 1995, Congress attached language to an appropriations bill prohibiting the use of any federal funds for research that destroys or seriously endangers human embryos, or creates them for research purposes. This provision, known as the Dickey Amendment, has been attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill each year since 1996. This law only prohibits federal funding of such research and does not affect either private funding efforts or private research that involves the destruction of embryos.

Michael Kinsley at The Atlantic:

OK, let’s go through this one more time.

Half of all pregnancies end in miscarriages, usually in the first couple of weeks, before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. A miscarriage destroys an embryo. If you believe that every embryo is the moral equivalent of a fully-formed human being, miscarriages are like a perpetual natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake, and you should be urging a massive effort to reduce miscarriages as the best way to save millions of human lives a year. As far as I know, there is no such effort going on in the United States or elsewhere.

But perhaps your concern is not the number of slaughtered embryos, but rather the morality of intentionally killing them or—worse, in your view—intentionally creating and then killing them. In that case, your attention should be directed to fertility clinics, which routinely create multiple embryos for each human baby they wish to produce. They pick and choose among the embryos that seem healthiest, and typically implant several in the hope that one—and not more than one—will survive. Every year tens of thousands of human embryos are created and destroyed (or pointlessly frozen) in the everyday work of fertility clinics. There is no political effort to stop this work. President George W. Bush even praised the work of fertility clinics in his speech announcing the policy that virtually halted stem cell research for eight years. Advanced fertility techniques have brought happiness to thousands of couples who otherwise would probably be childless. They are a godsend that no politician would dare oppose.

Of the tens of thousands of embryos discarded by fertility clinics every year, a few are used for stem cell research. Extracting the stem cells involves destroying the embryos, which would be destroyed anyway. True, the destruction of embryos used for research is purposeful, whereas the destruction of embryos in the everyday work of fertility clinics is incidental. But is that distinction really strong enough to support the difference between cavalier acceptance of tens of thousands of embryo deaths in fertility clinics and a legal ban on using a small fraction of these embryos to help develop ways to save lives? (Conflict-of-interest note: My life included. I have Parkinson’s.)

Allah Pundit:

The result: It’s Congress’s move now. They can either clarify Dickey-Wicker to okay funding for research on stem-cell lines derived from killed embryos, or The One and NIH can put their heads together to try to draft more clever language that will comply with the statute. Given the likelihood of a much redder Congress next year, they’d better hurry up either way. One thing I don’t understand, though: It sounds like the court’s decision would have found even Bush’s policy in violation of Dickey-Wicker. Bush didn’t cut off all funding for ESC research, remember, just for research on embryonic stem cells created after the date of his executive order. Weren’t the stem-cell lines already in existence on that date also based on killed embryos and therefore in violation of the statute?

Radley Balko at Reason:

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations had thought that they had artfully gotten around this restriction by regulatory interpretations. The National Institutes of Health concluded that while the government could not pay for the creation and derivation of embryonic stem cells federally funded researchers could use such cells once they had been derived.

The case had been brought before the court by the conservative Christian Alliance Defense Fund and Nightlight Christian Adoptions which wants to put embryos left over from fertility treatments up for “adoption.” Both argue that deriving human embryonic stem cells kills pre-born people.

Given that about 60 percent of Americans support stem cell research using embryos left over from fertility treatments, this ruling will surely spark the stem cell wars anew. While researchers eager to get federal funding will be disappointed and the confusion over the ruling will likely further delay research, the good news is that there is a lot private and state funding available for stem cell research.

Steve Benen:

Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said the ruling was “devastating to the hopes of researchers and patients who have been waiting so long for the promise of stem cell therapies.” Amy Comstock Rick, immediate past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, struck a similar note, calling yesterday’s news “absolutely devastating.”

“We were really looking forward to research finally moving forward with the full backing of the NIH. We were really looking forward to the next chapter when human embryonic stem cells could really be explored for their full potential. This really sets us back,” Rick said. “Every day we lose is another day lost for patients waiting for cures.”

Others can speak to the legal proceedings with more expertise than I can, and it was at least somewhat heartening to see one lawyer weigh in describing the judge’s order as “quite vulnerable; it’s not on solid ground at all.”

I’d just note as an aside, though, that the breakdown in the Senate’s ability to fill judicial vacancies often has sweeping national and international implications — in the matter of medical research, possibly even issues of life and death.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

This kind of came out of nowhere. It doesn’t overturn the funding rules but allows the case to proceed, with a temporary injunction against implementation until the completion of the case. This ensures that a case on the high-profile issue will continue through the election, though in recent years, stem cell research has not been among the high-profile hot-button issues.

UPDATE: William Saletan in Slate

Jim Pinkerton

Adam Keiper at NRO

More Saletan in Slate

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Filed under Science, Stem Cell

One response to “The Stem Cell Fight Begins Anew, A Return To 2001 For Me And You

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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