Friday, August 27, 2010

Editorial: Stem Cell Ruling Defies Science, Logic and Comprehension

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
By: Editorial Board, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A federal judge in the District of Columbia on Monday blocked an executive order by President Barack Obama that allowed federal funding for some embryonic stem cell research.

Also invalidated, apparently, was an executive order by former President George W. Bush that allowed federal funding for research on any of 21 embryonic stem cell lines.

Think that’s a good thing? Keep reading.

The ruling seems to prohibit any federal funding of any kind for embryonic stem cell research — and, perhaps, for many other types of biological research. That may include some kinds of research you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being related to embryonic stem cells.

The implications are so wide-ranging and uncertain that attorneys for the winning side told a Washington Post reporter they would need clarification from the judge before deciding exactly what they had won.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth talked about preserving “the status quo.”

If by “status quo” he meant the cloud of legal uncertainty that once hovered over one of the most promising areas of scientific research, he most certainly was correct.

Judge Lamberth’s ruling turns on two things: The meaning of the word “research,” and the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bars federal funding for “research in which human embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk.”

Dickey-Wicker isn’t a law. It’s a provision in the federal budget for the National Institutes of Health written in 1996 — two years before human embryonic stem cells were first isolated — and has been added to each successive NIH budget.

In 1999, a lawyer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibits federal funding to procure embryonic stem cells.

But, the attorney continued, it does not prohibit funding for experiments on embryonic stem cells from lines that already exist. The implication is that each new study involving the cells is a separate piece of “research.”

Dickey-Wicker’s prohibitions apply only to the specific research that results in destruction of an embryo, not to subsequent studies on cells or tissues produced as a result of the initial research.

That essentially is the position espoused by Mr. Bush, who in 2001 issued an executive order that allowed federal funding for research on any of 21 stem cell lines then already in existence.

In Monday’s ruling, Judge Lamberth specifically rejected those distinctions. “This prohibition encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the separate ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed,” he wrote.

That position is simple to understand and seems internally consistent. But there’s a problem. Very few working scientists would recognize or agree with that definition.

Take, for example, the famous HeLa cell line first isolated in 1951. It comes from a cervical cancer biopsy on a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who never gave her consent for it to be used in research.

Three generations of scientists have used HeLa cells for breakthrough discoveries in genetics, cell biology and aging. Most research conducted using HeLa cells has nothing to do with cancer.

Under Judge Lamberth’s interpretation, all of those studies in all those disparate fields are, in fact, a single piece of research. That’s clearly not the case.

If federal funding can’t be used for research on embryonic stem cells, can it be used for other studies based on techniques developed through research on embryonic stem cells?

That’s not a moot question. One of the hottest fields of stem cell research today involves adult cells that have been “tricked” into reverting to a state where they’re capable of becoming any cell in the body. Those “tricks” owe a lot to observations of embryonic stem cells.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration said it would appeal Judge Lamberth’s decision. That’s the right decision. But it will be months or years before the legal issues are resolved. Meanwhile, U.S. scientists are at a disadvantage against their overseas competitors.

A bill now pending in Congress would protect stem cell research and legalize federal funding for studies involving all available embryonic stem cell lines. But it’s gone nowhere since being introduced early last year.

Congress should quickly pass the so-called Stem Cell Enhancement Act of 2009. That’s the fastest route to finally resolving the issue.

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