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Judge's Ruling Blocks Stem Cell Work. Is it Even More Restricted Than Under Bush?

Stem cell science took a shocking detour this week when a federal judge put a block on funding for the use of embryonic cells.

Scientists were stunned, and in the couple of days since the ruling, everyone is trying to figure out exactly what this means for the newly-invigorated field. In 2009, Obama issued an executive order giving a thumbs up to research using embryonic stem cells, as long as the embryos were from fertility clinics and would be discarded anyway, the donating woman was not paid, and she had fully consented.

Grants were given, university labs ramped up, and momentum was gaining.

But the field has been given a serious blow.  For now, all the research proposals under consideration for funding by the National Institutes of Health are frozen, and no one is exactly clear on what this means for work that was allowed under the Bush policy.

What was the judge’s rationale?  And what will Obama’s next move be?The judge’s ruling hinged on the distinction between funding research that destroyed embryos (the process of actually extracting the stem cells), versus research that used cells that were previously extracted.

The first type of work is illegal under the Dickey-Wicker amendment. Obama’s 2009 executive order didn’t change this amendment at all—it worked around it. Obama made it okay to fund working with these cells, not the actual extraction process (that has always used private money).

But the judge said the distinction between the two was meaningless. So in essence, he also clamped down on research using stem cell lines that were allowed under Bush.

According to the director of the NIH, projects that have already been funded will go forward.  And meanwhile, the White House said today it would appeal the ruling.  Hopefully this is not the end of the story.

Image: Flickr/euthman

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