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Embryonic Stem Cell Research Reignites Controversy


On Monday, US federal district judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that President Obama’s 2009 executive order that expanded embryonic stem cell research violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment on federal money being used for any “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” The lawsuit, filed against the National Institutes of Health, and temporary injunction reignites the controversy on the use of embryos for research.

Dickey-Wicker Amendment Limits Funding, Not Research

"The Dickey-Wicker Amendment unambiguously prohibits the use of federal funds for all research in which a human embryo is destroyed," said the ruling by Lamberth, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Research involving embryonic stem cells is usually conducted with four to five day old embryos created from in-vitro fertilization and ultimately discarded from fertility clinics. The stem cells are removed and the remainder of the embryo destroyed. Embryonic stem cell research differs from other kinds of stem cell research, which use adult stem cells extracted from a donor.

Human embryonic and adult stem cells each have advantages and disadvantages regarding potential use for cell-based regenerative therapies. One major difference between adult and embryonic stem cells is their different abilities in the number and type of differentiated cell types they can become. Embryonic stem cells can become all cell types of the body because they are pluripotent. Adult stem cells are thought to be limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin.

Read: Vitamin C Efficiently Reprograms Adult Stem Cells to Produce Embryonic Cells

The first executive branch move to block federal funding for the creation of embryos for stem cell research came in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. This position was reinforced by President George W. Bush, who, in August 2001, strengthened the ban on federal funding by barring federal funds for research on all but a few existing embryonic stem cell lines.

Under Obama’s order, the administration allowed financing of research into any embryonic stem cell lines that either were allowed by the Bush administration or had been created using embryos discarded after fertilization procedures and in which donors had given clear consent for the embryos to be used for research purposes.

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According to an ABC News survey, nearly 6 in 10 Americans favored the loosening of the restrictions surrounding embryonic stem cell research.

Although the administration claims the rules abided by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment because the federal money would only be used once the stem cells were created and would not finance the process to destroy embryos, Judge Lamberth disagreed. Embryonic stem cell research, he said, “necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo.

"If one step or 'piece of research' of an [embryonic stem cell] research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment," Lamberth wrote.

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Scientists and stem cell research supporters were shocked by the ruling. “This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, 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.”

Those against the use of embryonic cells for research were pleased. Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency that helps with adoptions of embryos stored in fertilization clinics and one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said “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.”

The government can appeal the injunction, and a Justice Department spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, said the decision was being reviewed.