“This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research, just at the time when we were really gaining momentum,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. The ruling, he added, “just pours sand into that engine of discovery.”
The ruling, issued Monday, revived what had been a dormant moral and political debate over the research just in time for the November midterm elections. At a time when members of both parties are trying to focus on jobs and the economy, thorny questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation were once again percolating in Washington.
Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who is a leading proponent of stem cell science, said in an interview that she had briefed fellow Democrats on Tuesday morning by conference call on the decision. She urged them to quickly revive a measure — twice passed by Congress and twice vetoed by President George W. Bush — that would legalize the studies and codify the policy Mr. Obama announced in March 2009.
“This court opinion hit everybody by surprise,” Ms. DeGette said. “It calls all of these policies of the last 10 years into question. I think what it really underscores is the extreme urgency for Congress to act to codify ethical embryonic stem cell research.”
In his decision, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia issued a temporary injunction blocking Mr. Obama’s rules from going into effect. The Justice Department said it would ask for the injunction to be lifted, pending its appeal.
As opponents of the research hailed the ruling, the White House warned that if upheld, it could roll back not only the Obama rules, but also the more restrictive ones issued by his predecessor. Beyond human embryonic stem cell studies, research on vaccines, viruses andlung disease could also be affected, experts said, because cells commonly used in such research were derived from either aborted fetuses or destroyed embryos.
On Tuesday, the N.I.H. had invited experts in for a long-planned session to review grant applications for human embryonic stem cell studies, but the meeting was abruptly canceled, Dr. Collins said. Forty-five minutes later, he found himself briefing reporters on that and other effects of the court’s decision.
In 2009, the health institutes spent $143 million to underwrite more than 330 scientific projects using human embryonic stem cells, and it estimated that it would spend another $137 million in this fiscal year, which ends in September.
Among the projects financed with this money is research by Dr. Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, to find a cure for juvenile diabetes. His two children — a 19-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter — have the disease. Both must inject themselves with insulin, and he said they frequently ask about his work.
Dr. Melton said he was relieved to learn that his present grants would be unaffected by the ruling. But he has been working for months on writing a grant that he was about to submit for more work using human embryonic stem cells, and he feared it would be rejected.
“Imagine when you go home tonight and your son or daughter says, ‘Dad, have you solved this problem?’ ” Dr. Melton asked. “You don’t forget those things.”
Another study that is likely to be delayed is a clinical test of human embryonic stem cells in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Lorenz Studer, director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Stem Cell Biology, said that after 10 years of work, he was on the cusp of putting the cells in people.
The court decision, if upheld, Dr. Studer said, could mean difficult choices for researchers: Either find private funding, leave the United States or delay their studies in hopes that a different kind of stem cell can be found that will work equally well.
“I can’t honestly tell you what I will do,” Dr. Studer said.
Judge Lamberth’s ruling is rooted in the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment, which has been attached to federal spending bills every year and first became law in 1996 — before scientists successfully extracted stem cells from human embryos. The amendment, named for the lawmakers who wrote it, states that federal money may not be used for scientific research that destroys human embryos.
Because embryos are destroyed during cell extraction, Dickey-Wicker barred federal funding for such experiments. But in 1999, a Clinton administration lawyer, Harriett S. Rabb, found a way around the amendment; in a legal memorandum, she argued that taxpayers could finance experiments on stem cell colonies, called lines, that had already been cultivated with private money. Mr. Bush adopted this reasoning, with severe restrictions. Mr. Obama lifted those restrictions.
Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the Rabb interpretation “implausibly narrow.”
Now Judge Lamberth has ruled that the government’s careful parsing of Dickey-Wicker is invalid. Representative DeGette said Tuesday she was exploring ways to alter the amendment — a move that would draw intense protests from religious conservatives and opponents of abortion.
A more likely Congressional response would be to revive the legislation Mr. Bush vetoed. The measure has broad Democratic support, as well as considerable support from Republicans, many of whom support embryonic stem cell science even if they oppose abortions. Gallup, the polling organization, says its surveys show 59 percent of the public believes human embryonic stem cell research is morally acceptable, up from 52 percent in 2002.
“I think the public is on our side on stem cell issues and swing voters are on our side,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in an interview. “This is very open to a legislative solution.”
The issue may crop up in some election campaigns. In Delaware, for instance, Representative Mike Castle, a moderate Republican who is running for Senate, has faced attacks from his primary opponent over his support for embryonic stem cell research. Mr. Castle issued a statement on Tuesday saying that he remains committed to the work.
But the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, applauded the decision.
“It is morally wrong to create human life in order to destroy it for research,” Mr. Pence said in a statement, “and it is wrong that the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans have been used to fund this destructive research.”
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and GARDINER HARRIS (Originally published in the NY Times August 24, 2010)