Federal Appeals Court Lifts Ban on Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

May 10, 2011

On Apr. 29, 2011, a federal appeals court has lifted a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. The move was celebrated by researchers hoping to use such cells for research, but it is likely that the decision will be appealed. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells derived from embryonic tissue in a process that usually results in the destruction of the embryo. The ban on funding did not apply to stem cells derived from adult tissue.

The case began when a lawsuit was brought against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by Dr. James Sherley and Dr. Theresa Deisher, scientists opposed to embryonic stem cell research.  The scientists cited a 1996 federal law called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that prohibits funding for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed." The scientists also claimed that funding embryonic stem cell research hurt their ability to receive federal funding for their own research using adult stem cells. In August 2010, a district court agreed with the plaintiffs that embryonic stem cell research violated federal law and blocked funding, but a three-judge appeals court temporarily lifted the ban in September. The issue is whether that law's restrictions apply to research conducted on stem cell lines that had been developed without federal funding. NIH has interpreted the law narrowly, and argued that creating embryonic stem cells is not the same as using lines created without federal funding for research purposes.  In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court sided with the NIH, finding the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to be “ambiguous”, and the NIH’s interpretation reasonable.

Francis Collins III, director of the NIH, issued this statement: “I am delighted and relieved to learn of the decision of the Court of Appeals. This is a momentous day—not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research.”