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High court ensures continued US funding of human embryonic-stem-cell research

Declining to hear a final appeal, the US Supreme Court ends bid to block government support.

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Franz Jantzen

The US Supreme Court decision ensures continued government funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The US Supreme Court today ended an effort to shut down government support of human embryonic-stem-cell research, by refusing to hear a case that challenged the legality of funding for the work by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The high court’s refusal to consider an appeal in the case of Sherley v. Sebelius ends a more than 3-year effort by the plaintiffs, two adult-stem-cell researchers, to stop NIH backing of the work, which holds the promise of treatments for a variety of diseases, but which depends on the destruction of days-old human embryos. As is typical practice, the court did not give reasons for declining to hear the case.

Embryonic-stem-cell researchers are jubilant. “We couldn't be happier that this frivolous, but at the same time potentially devastating, distraction is behind us,” says Douglas Melton, a scientific director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the lead plaintiff on the case, James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Watertown, Massachusetts, says that the decision will not end his efforts “to emancipate human embryos from research slavery sponsored by the NIH”.

It was in August 2009, that Sherley and Theresa Deisher, the chief executive of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, Washington, sued the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, and the director of the NIH, Francis Collins. The lawsuit came several months after the NIH had published guidelines implementing an executive order by US President Barack Obama, which liberalized the stem-cell policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and led to scores of new human embryonic-stem-cell lines being available to NIH-funded researchers. Under the guidelines, the lines must be derived, with informed consent from the donor, from leftover embryos at fertility clinics that would have been thrown away. The NIH does not fund the derivation of the lines, only the subsequent research.

When the case came before Judge Royce Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, he shocked the research community in August 2010 by issuing an injunction that shut down all NIH-funded experiments for 17 days. However, an appeals court suspended the injunction while the case moved through the courts.

A three-judge panel of that higher court, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruled against the plaintiffs in August 2012. It said that the NIH had reasonably interpreted the Dickey Wicker amendment, a 17-year-old law that says that NIH funds may not be used in research in which an embryo is “destroyed” or “discarded”, and the mainstay of the case. The court found the law’s wording to be ambiguous enough to allow the NIH to fund research on the cell lines, if not their derivation.

Sherley and Deisher then appealed to the Supreme Court, the court of last resort.

Although the case may now be over, Deisher says that the lawsuit accomplished one of its goals: some scientists and clinicians have focused instead on working with adult stem cells.

But supporters of the research are celebrating the decision, saying that work on embryonic-stem-cell lines could lead to therapies for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and other ailments. “What a great day for science,” says Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington DC, an umbrella group of organizations that advocate for the research. Collins says that he is “very pleased”.

Under Obama, the NIH has made 195 stem-cell lines available for use to researchers; under Bush, the number was around 20. George Daley, an NIH-supported stem-cell researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston, says that he is relieved. “The ruling erases the nagging worry that existing funding could be cut off at any time.” Still, he says, the threat alone achieved some of its intended effect — to instil enough uncertainty to keep some researchers from entering the field.

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