AUGUST 24, 2010
Blindsided by a court ruling blocking federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells, the U.S. government plans to freeze all new grants for scientists and impose other restrictions on this burgeoning area of science.
The National Institutes of Health said it has abandoned its planned review of 50 new grant applications, and will not proceed with a second-level review of about a dozen applications valued at $15 million to $20 million. Also frozen is a planned review in September of another 22 grant applications totaling $54 million.
The preliminary injunction against federal funding for the research was issued on Monday by Judge Royce Lamberth of U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The judge said that federal funding violated a 1996 law prohibiting federal money for research in which an embryo was destroyed.
Embryonic stem cells, the size of a pencil dot, have long been both controversial and promising. Cells taken from embryos are special because they can turn into all the cells of the body. Researchers hope one day to convert these master cells into specific tissue types and treat an array of ailments, from spinal injuries and diabetes to Parkinson's disease, as well as to screen for new drugs.Erik Jacobs for The Wall Street Journal
A lab technician working Tuesday at Zon Lab at Children's Hospital Boston, where stem-cell research is conducted.
Opponents maintain that such research, which leads to the destruction of the embryo, is tantamount to taking a life, and have opposed such experiments on ethical grounds.
The ruling represents a dramatic setback for stem-cell science in the U.S. In March 2009, President Barack Obama expanded federal funding of human embryo research, launching dozens of new stem-cell projects across the country. Since then, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has approved 75 new stem cell lines. The ruling could even make research on lines approved under President George W. Bush ineligible for federal funding.
The judge's ruling "potentially places all this in jeopardy," said Francis Collins, director of the NIH, in a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "It has the potential to do serious damage just at a time we were gaining momentum" in stem cell research.
However, scientists have already received some $131 million in grants to pursue the research in the current fiscal year and can continue to use the money until it runs out, the NIH said.
Stem-Cell Research: A Growing Debate
Track changes in approval and funding for stem-cell research in the past decade.
Dr. Collins and other scientists said the judicial ruling, provided it stands, could hurt the country's interests in the long run. "It will put us at a huge competitive disadvantage to other countries" with fast-growing stem cell programs, including Japan, the U.K., Australia and China, said Tim Kamp, director of the University of Wisconsin Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.
But David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said: "People forget that each one of us was an embryo, and if someone destroyed us for biological parts, we wouldn't be around today." The CMA, with about 17,000 members, was one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Until the NIH publicly disclosed its reaction late Tuesday, stem cell scientists were in limbo about the implications of the ruling.
The University of Wisconsin has 34 approved projects involving human embryonic cells, of which 21 are paid for by the federal government, supporting the work of 18 scientists from cardiologists to chemists. Total federal funding for human-embryo research at the university is about $5 million annually.
Dr. Kamp, for example, is a cardiologist trying to understand heart function by studying the electrical properties in heart cells. Since it can be hard to obtain human cardiac cells, he is deriving heart cells from embryos, a project funded by the NIH.
"Most people are hesitating to go into their incubators and dump out their cell cultures, which may be the result of years of work," said Dr. Kamp.
The judge's ruling could have a knock-on effect on another promising approach to stem cell science. Researchers have discovered that it is possible to turn mature cells—from skin, say—into an embryo-like state. Because these reprogrammed cells aren't created by embryo destruction, they are considered an uncontroversial source of fresh tissue. Dozens of U.S. labs in recent years have begun work on reprogrammed cells.
But in many cases, human embryonic cells are used as a "control," a way to judge whether reprogrammed cells have the same biological properties as naturally occurring ones.
Despite the promise of reprogrammed cells, embryo-derived cells are likely to remain the "gold standard" for experiments for quite some time.
George Daley, a stem-cell scientist at Children's Hospital Boston, recently co-authored a paper comparing the behavior of cells taken from embryos afflicted with a condition called Fragile-X with embryo-like cells reprogrammed from the skin of patients with the disease. Fragile X is the most common form of inherited mental retardation. Dr. Daley found that the culprit gene for the condition, FMR1, is active in true embryonic cells but shut off in embryo-like cells, which are derived from patients via by reprogramming.
"So if you wanted to study Fragile X," Dr. Daley said, "you have to study the embryonic stem cells."
Write to Gautam Naik at email@example.com