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Scientists Dismayed by Stem Cell Research Ruling

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 24 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. scientists are reacting with dismay to Monday's decision by a U.S. judge to halt any expansion of stem cell research using federal funds.

The temporary injunction, which basically blindsided the scientific community, effectively takes embryonic stem cell research back to the pre-2001 days. That was when then-President Bush ordered that federal monies could only be used to fund research involving embryonic stem cell lines created before 2001.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration, which had issued an executive order overturning the Bush order, said it was considering its options, including a possible appeal of the judge's ruling, according to the Associated Press.

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama still thinks his policy is the right one, and believes it can lead to lifesaving treatments while maintaining "stringent ethical guidelines." Asked by reporters if an appeal is planned, Burton said "all possible avenues" are being explored.

In the scientific community, stem cell experts said the judge's ruling will cripple this area of research.

"It's a worst-case scenario," said Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, which operates with private funds. "It actually takes [us] even further back than during the Bush lines, because at least then you could work on so-called approved Bush lines. But now you can't work on anything. It's unwieldy. It's unworkable, and we believe it will be reversed."

Solomon also said that the court decision "allows a vocal minority to hold science hostage to a narrow political agenda."

"It's an enormous impact, and it hurts more now trying to stop the additional research that's been going on [since the Obama order]," said Paul Sanberg, a stem cell expert and director of the University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa.

"Fortunately," he added, "there's still a lot of research on non-embryonic stem cells that is showing a lot of promise and going into clinical trials."

Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, said in a statement that the organization was "deeply disappointed" in the decision.

"This injunction blocks important research on how to unlock the enormous potential of human embryonic stem cells. It will be incredibly disruptive and once again drive the best scientific minds into work less likely to yield treatments for conditions from diabetes to spinal cord injury," he said.

Soon after taking office in 2009, Obama signed an order allowing federal funds to be used on embryonic stem cell lines created since 2001, though not for any additional lines, explained Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the Master's Bioethics Program at Columbia University Medical Center, who has written extensively on the ethics of stem cell research.

On Monday, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth, of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, issued a temporary injunction on the Obama administration's policy expanding stem cell research. Lamberth was appointed in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan.

The suit was brought by Nightlight Christian Adoptions and several other organizations. "We do not want to see stem cell research that would destroy embryos," Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight, told The New York Times. "Embryos are preborn human life that should be protected, and not destroyed. If there was a way of extracting the stem cells without destroying them, I would not be opposed to it."

Stoddart also said that the plaintiffs wanted government rules to hark back to the status quo under the Bush administration.

Scientists said they are somewhat muddled on how the decision affects stem cell research labs across the country.

"It's not clear what labs will have to do," Klitzman said. "The decision was not expected in any way partly because it is such a misreading and misinterpretation of the law of science and Congressional intent."

Solomon said that institutions would have to "separately track human embryonic stem cell work and federal funding." That means, space, equipment, anything that is federally funded cannot be used with this type of research.

"The work being done with federal funds is going to need to stop, and you'll need to see if you have other funds that you can substitute for that work," she said. "It's going to grind everything to a halt except for very unusual, privately supported labs, like ours. Everyone else has a mix of federal and private funds."

"The net is that instead of trying to understand the mechanisms of disease and figuring out cell therapies, everybody is now doing a giant accounting audit," she added. "It's unworkable."

More information

Visit the National Institutes of Health for more on stem cell basics.

SOURCES: Robert Klitzman, M.D., director, Master's Bioethics Program, Columbia University Medical Center, New York City; Susan Solomon, CEO, New York Stem Cell Foundation; Paul Sanberg, Ph.D., D.Sc., distinguished professor, neurosurgery, and director, University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair, Tampa, Fla.; Aug. 24, 2010, statement, American Society of Reproductive Medicine; New York Times; Associated Press

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