Human stem cell research
Major events during 2010
2010-AUG-23: Federal judge halts NIH funding:
Federal District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia delivered his ruling in a case argued by the fundamentalist Christian group Alliance Defense Fund. He determined that the National Institutes for Health's 2009-APR guidelines established for stem cell research funding violated an earlier law banning the use of federal money to extract stem cells from pre-embryos. He wrote:
"If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an [embryonic stem cell] E.S.C. research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding."
Judge Lamberth based his decision on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which is a law that Congress passes each year. It prohibits federal financing for any "... research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death."
The authors of the guidelines had assumed that as long as private money was used to extract stem cells from a pre-embryo, that the government could fund any subsequent research steps.
Unfortunately, the ruling appears to be ambiguous; researchers seem to be unable to understand its meaning: The temporary injunction associated with Judge Lamberth's ruling may only eliminate funding of future projects; it might prevent future extraction of stem cells from pre-embryos for existing projects; it might make the continuation of all federally funded existing research on stem cells -- even that allowed by President G.W. Bush in 2001 -- illegal.
Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, took a cautious approach. He said:
"I have had to tell everyone in my lab that when they feed their [stem] cells tomorrow morning, they better use media that has not been funded by the federal government. This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order."
Dr. Leonard I. Zon, director of the stem cell program at Children’s Hospital Boston, was surprised by the ruling. He said:
"The Obama administration’s permission to use federal funds is critical for embryonic stem cell research to move forward and has set a great standard for the United States."
Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions -- one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- was pleased with the judge’s ruling. He said:
"We do not want to see stem cell research that would destroy embryos. 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."
He appears to misunderstand the process by which stem cells are obtained; they are not destroyed by the process, but are removed intact and are then encouraged to multiply in the lab and grow in numbers.
Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, hopes that the ruling will be overturned on appeal. He 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."
The lawsuit was launched during 2009 by two stem cell researchers who work with adult stem cells, Dr. James L. Sherley and Dr. Theresa Deisher. Other plaintiffs included Nightlight Christian Adoptions. It was initially dismissed on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. The judge's ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals who found that the two physicians would face increased competition for federal funding under the new policy. The lawsuit was then resumed with only the two doctors as plaintiffs. 1,2
2010-SEP-22: First clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells starts:
Geron Corp. has begun enrolling individuals for the first clinical trial of human embryonic stem cells using oligodendrocyte progenitor cells. These are cells that insulate nerve fibres with myelin, thus allowing electrical signals to be transmitted to and from the brain. The trial is based on research done by neuroscientist Hans Keirstead, and his research team at the University of California, Irvine.
Earlier studies on paralyzed rats were reasonably successful. They were able to regain their ability to walk and run. However, they did limp noticeably.
Up to 10 patients who have very recent thoracic spinal cord injuries will take part in the test. Up to six other testing sites will be added to the trial later. 3
2010-SEP-28: Injunction against stem cell funding temporarily lifted:
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Washington DC Circuit heard oral arguments on whether to lift the injunction established earlier by Chief Judge Royce Lamberth.
On SEP-27, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Beth Brinkmann testified that if the lower court's injunction remained in place, then funding to 24 research projects by the National Institutes of Health would stop. That would "be a setback" to the projects. Biological materials would have to be destroyed.
The appeals court panel lifted the injunction by Chief Judge Lamberth.
White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs commented on the appeal court's decision, saying:
"President Obama made expansion of stem cell research and the pursuit of groundbreaking treatments and cures a top priority when he took office. We're heartened that the court will allow NIH and their grants to continue moving forward while the appeal is resolved."
The Obama administration has a number of options to continue funding. They might:
- Attempt to amend the Dickey-Wicker amendment to clarify its meaning and allow the use in research of embryonic stem cells extracted by private funds.
- Pursue the case in the appeals court in the hope of winning the case. If they were to lose, they could still appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. However with four strict constructionist Roman Catholic Justices on the 9 person court who generally vote as a block in support of conservative Christian beliefs, the government might lose the appeal. 4
2010-NOV-08: A new breakthrough process: "transdifferentiation:"
Induced pluripotent stem cells were a great step forward, because experimenters were able to take adult cells -- often skin cells -- and process them so that they behaved much like embryonic stem cells and had the potential to be coaxed to develop into many of the cell types found in the body. But over the previous two years researchers have developed a process called transdifferentiation in which they have been able to change one cell type directly into another type:
According to an article in the New York Times, groups have been able to convert:
- connective tissue directly into nerve tissue;
- connective tissue directly into heart muscles, and
- exocrine cells of the pancreas -- which secrete digestive enzymes, directly into endocrine cells, which make hormones like insulin.
Related essays on this web site:
Cloning and stem cell research are unrelated lines of research. However, they
both start with an ovum and initially use some of the same techniques.
References used in the above essay:
- Clay Dillow, "Federal Judge Halts Obama's New Embryonic Stem Cell Policy, Leaving Research in Limbo, PopSci.com, 2010-AUG-24, at: http://www.popsci.com/
- Gardiner Harris, "U.S. Judge Rules Against Obama’s Stem Cell Policy," The New York Times, 2010-AUG-23, at:
- Karen Kaplan, "First clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells gets underway in Chicago," Los Angeles Times, 2010-SEP-22, at: http://articles.latimes.com/
- "Injunction Prohibiting Stem Cell Funding Lifted," RedOrbit, 2010-SET-29, at: http://www.redorbit.com/
- Gina Kolata, "Glimpsing a Scientific Future as Fields Heat Up," New York Times, 2010-NOV-08, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
Copyright © 2010 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2010-SEP-29
Latest update: 2013-OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson