University researchers still face an uncertain future as the debate over human embryotic stem cell research funding continues.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia permanently suspended an Aug. 23 injunction Tuesday that had brought federal funding for the research to a halt. Researchers had been able to resume work with stem cells in early September when the issued injunction was temporarily lifted, but the federal appeals court, which is currently reviewing the case, could rule to block funding once again.
Human embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos — most of which are given for research purposes from the donor or would otherwise be thrown out as medical waste. The cells are characterized by their ability to change into any kind of cell type in the body and therefore can be used to regenerate and repair tissue, according to the National Institutes for Health, the organization that distributes most of the federal funding to researchers, including universities.
Scientists who work with human embryonic stem cells have faced a tumultuous year — from President Barack Obama allowing federal research funding that had been limited during the George W. Bush Administration to the court injunction that blocked the same funding.
Last March, the Obama Administration issued an executive order that eased restrictions on research on human embryonic stem cells. Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who ruled on the injunction that banned funding in August, justified his ruling because he claimed the research violated a 1996 law that banned the use of taxpayer money to derive stem cells from embryos.
The appeals court then permanently lifted the judge’s ruling Tuesday after the Department of Justice argued the ban would harm scientists and taxpayers.
Stem cell researchers at colleges and universities in New York state are not only facing the potential of future funding cuts, but also the possibility of having to restructure projects or cancel future plans with human embryonic stem cell research and student labs if the federal funding does not continue.
Gerold Feuer, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at SUNY-Upstate Medical University, said his university is just now making the transition to embryonic stem cell research.
Feuer said an overarching issue for the transition is the lack of funding in the biomedical field as a whole.
“We’re going forward with this [research] because of the potential,” he said. “It causes a lot of uncertainty in the field as to whether you can progress legally and logistically. If the funding is halted for this research, it really puts a lot of science into turmoil.”
Scott Coonrod, associate professor of biomedical sciences at the Baker Institute for Animal Health, also serves as a faculty member in the Cornell University Stem Cell Program. He said while he does not work specifically with human embryonic stem cells, there are many other animal species being tested at Cornell.
“I would imagine that if the human embryonic stem cells were available, researchers could then take their findings that they found in the mouse cells and see if it applies to the human cells,” he said. “Without that availability there, they’re going to be restricted in a way that they can’t validate findings.”
NIH has resumed grant consideration and lifted the suspension of all grants that currently involve the use of the human embryonic stem cells as well. For 2010, NIH has provided about $131 million in funding human embryonic stem cell research. In 2009, Cornell was awarded grants from NIH totaling $6,596,701 for microbiology and $3,524,512 for veterinary sciences, which includes their research on animal stem cells.
Coonrod said as an NIH-funded researcher himself, he is responsible for a peer review process that goes into approving grants. He said many of those proposals use stem cells.
“When you have this on again, off again type of situation then the whole field comes in question because nobody knows what the end result is going to be,” he said. “The whole field is just sort of shut down because of these rulings.”
Peter Brink, professor and chairman of physiology and biophysics at SUNY-Stony Brook, is working on adult stem cell research and said the back and forth nature of the laws delays scientific progress now and potentially for years into the future.
“The young people coming into the scientific fields today are very much hurt by these kinds of difficulties with funding,” he said. “Even with all the motivation in the world, if you don’t have the resources available then you can’t have a viable outcome. You can have a car, but if you don’t have gasoline, you’re not going to get very far.”
Alexander Nikitin, associate professor of biomedical sciences and leader of Cornell’s Stem Cell Program, said one of the reasons Cornell does not experiment with human embryonic stem cells is because the future of the funding is often up in the air.
“Uncertainty in securing reliable federal funding is certainly among the most important reasons,” he said. “Federal restriction affects not only manipulation of embryonic stem cells, but also a place to perform them.”
Brink said because of the controversy regarding ethical practices of human embryonic stem cell research, funding is always difficult to come by.
“It’s never been easy,” he said. “But it’s a more difficult time than any I can remember in the past. I’m not going to stop writing grants or stop trying to think about a problem because it’s harder.”
Tatiana Patrone, assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College, teaches a bioethics class every semester and discusses medical ethical dilemmas such as stem cell research in her classes. She said the ethical debate over human embryonic stem cell research stems from whether one believes the embryo is a human being or a person.
“Genetically you might be human, but having rights is usually associated with being a person,” she said. “On the conservative side, people think if you’re human, you are automatically or directly entitled to those rights.”
Patrone said two viewpoints, religious and secular, offer arguments for why human embryos should not be used in research.
“In terms of religious argument, people are worried that at the moment of conception, or very soon thereafter, ensoulment happens,” she said. “The secular view tends to think the potential for becoming a person, not just a human being, is every bit as important as already being a person.”
No matter what, Patrone said, any legislation about federal funding would need to include an ethical viewpoint to back it up.
“It’s not just a moral issue,” she said. “It’s an issue that has to be resolved politically and legally.”
Feuer said what makes the progress slow is the constant change in policy regarding funding. While Congress is currently trying to legalize federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to avoid conflicting court decisions, such as Lamberth’s injunction, Feuer said having a federal law solidifying the funding is the only true way to guarantee future success.
“The bottom line is that in science, if you don’t have the money to do it, you can’t pursue it,” he said.