Preliminary Injunction against Federal Funds for Stem Cell Research: What does it mean?

Ann A. Kiessling, PhD


Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Judge Lamberth’s Preliminary Injunction against Federal Funds for Stem Cell Research: What does it mean?

On August 23, 2010, U. S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction against the use of federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research. If upheld, this injunction would reverse the executive orders of both former President George W. Bush, issued August 9, 2001, and President Barack Obama, issued March 9, 2009. Because of a long-standing prohibition on federal funding for research on human eggs and embryos (see “The History of the Dickey-Wicker amendment for a description of the Amendment“), Mr. Bush was the first U. S. president to release federal funds for research on human embryonic stem cell lines. His executive order restricted funds to research on those cell lines created prior to his order, in order to ensure that no tax payer dollars were used to create new cell lines by the destruction of human embryos. President Obama’s 2009 order eliminated Mr. Bush’s restrictions on eligible stem cell lines, thus allowing federal funds to study “to the extent permitted by law” all stem cells derived according to strict research guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Therefore, before Judge Lamberth’s preliminary injunction, according to new NIH guidelines, federal funds could be used to study any embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos, as long as the embryos had been donated for the research under strict guidelines, but tax payer dollars could still NOT be used to derive new embryonic stem cells. A surprising restriction was the prohibition against federal funds to both study and derive stem cell lines from unfertilized eggs. Termed parthenote stem cells, the stem cells derived from unfertilized eggs also promise to be useful for regenerative medicine, and do not carry the ethical concerns related to the destruction of embryos. (See the State of the Stem Cell)

The impact of Judge Lamberth’s preliminary injunction on on-going federally funded human embryonic stem cell research is not clear, nor has it been tallied how many scientists will be stalled in their efforts. The NIH indicates budgeting approximately $130 million annually for embryonic stem cell research, a small fraction of it’s $30 billion dollar annual budget. California’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine has a larger budget for stem cell research. Other states have set up programs to support stem cell research and bridge the gap in federal funding, including Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, but funding is only stable in California. Now, more than ever before, private philanthropic support is essential to the U.S. effort in embryonic stem cell research.

Given the wide-spread support among U. S. citizens for human embryonic stem cell research, it seems highly likely that broad public debate could convince congress that the will of the people is to allow taxpayer dollars to conduct research on the use of embryonic stem cells for regenerative medicine.

Until that time, private and state funding seems imperative to move this promising field forward. Increasing tax benefits for philanthropists who donate to stem cell research would help bridge the current gap in funding between the number of U.S. scientists capable and eager to conduct the necessary research, and the funding currently available.


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