Supreme Court Decision: Federal Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research Stands

January 8, 2013Carole No Comments »

On Jan. 7, 2013, in a move that pleased scientists who study embryonic stem cells, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case which called for prohibiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research according to this Forbes magazine article.  The decision leaves intact President Obama’s 2009 executive order to fund embryonic stem cell research using embryonic stem cell lines. Two scientists, James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, who received NIH funding exclusively for adult stem cell research, argued that funding for embryonic stem cell research was unethical and sued to end that funding,  in 2009. Their suit was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court which finally ended the matter by refusing to hear the case.

The suit brought by Sherley and Deisher sought to ban federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines as well as on human embryos based on their more global interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. The Dickey-Wicker amendment prohibited federal funding of research that created or destroyed  human embryos and was interpreted by Sherley and Deisher to mean that all federal funding for ESC research, both on embryos and on cell lines derived from human embryos, should be banned. ESC cells are derived from IVF embryos donated by patients who no longer want to use them for their own family building efforts. Embryonic stem cell line production disassembles the embryo (usually  the inner cell mass of a  blastocyst stage embryo containing perhaps 50-100 cells) to its individual cells but does not destroy the individual embryonic cells making up the embryo. These loose cells are put in culture and some of them become “immortal” cell lines.

President Obama’s 2009 Executive Directive did not effect the ban on federal dollars being used for the derivation of the embryonic stem cell lines, but did permit federal funding of research using ESC cell lines based on NIH’s more narrow interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. Sherley and Deisher sought to further extend the funding prohibition to research using ESC lines. Because of their own financial interest in adult stem cell research funding, some speculated that their suit was perhaps motivated at least in part by their own self-interest to  protect their piece of the NIH research funding pie. In any case, because the Supreme Court did not agree to review the case, President Obama’s directive for NIH funding of ESC line research stands, after a two-year delay in implementation.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) issued its own email notification to society members (Copied below):
“U.S. Supreme Court Denies Cert for Sherley v. Sebelius
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of Sherley v. Sebelius, a case involving federal funding of human embryonic stem research. Below is a statement issued today by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, of which ASRM is a founding member.
Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) WASHINGTON, D.C.
JANUARY 7, 2013
The following statement may be attributed to Amy Comstock Rick, CAMR president:
“What a great day for science and for the 100 million Americans who live with debilitating diseases and conditions for which human embryonic stem cell research provides hope.
The Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari for Sherley v. Sebelius brings an end to this long, unnecessary litigation.  This is a victory for scientists, patients, and the entire biomedical research community.  Science can now continue to move forward, knowing the threat to promising research and funding has been eliminated.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) currently has 198 embryonic stem cell lines on its registry, up from just 21 in 2009 when the NIH implemented President Obama’s Executive Order expanding federal funding for ethical human embryonic stem cell research.
CAMR filed an amicus brief in the District Court and Court of Appeals arguments.
For more than a decade, CAMR has worked to level the playing field for human embryonic stem cell research so that it had equal and fair access to funding and NIH oversight, and we are honored to have played a role in today’s Supreme Court decision that accomplished that very goal.”
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) is the nation’s leading bipartisan pro-cures coalition. Comprised of 100 nationally recognized patient organizations, universities, scientific societies, and foundations, CAMR’s advocacy and education outreach focuses on research toward developing better treatments and cures for individuals with life-threatening illnesses and disorders.”

Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research often argue that induced pluripotential stem cells ( iPS cells) or adult stem cells are just as good as embryonic stem cells (ESC) and so can be substituted for ESC. That would be a lovely and satisfying solution but unfortunately  research with the various types of stem cells does not support the conclusion that they can be used interchangeably. Induced stem cell lines are sometimes induced using viruses which makes them problematic- to say the least!- for clinical studies and possible transfer to patients for treatment of disease. Many adult cells are simply not as elastic as their embryonic counterparts in terms of assuming new cellular identities. Maybe some day, we can create iPS cell lines as functional as ESC lines but we are not there yet. For that, we need more research, which is more likely to happen now that federal funding for ESC line research is no longer at risk from this suit.


© 2013, Carole. All rights reserved.

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