WASHINGTON (AP) — Promising medical research is in disarray as scientists await an appeal by the Obama administration of a judge's ruling that undercuts taxpayer-funded research using human embryonic stem cells.
The Justice Department said Tuesday it would appeal later this week a federal judge's order temporarily halting such research money, a block that scientists and patient advocates said could irreparably set back the hunt for needed new treatments.
“The present ruling, if it stands, will be major blow to the hopes of many patients and their families,” said Dr. Peter Donovan, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Irvine.
Opponents of the research hailed the ruling, saying such federally supported studies are prohibited by law because human embryos are destroyed in order to extract the stem cells.
In the meantime, laboratories around the country struggled to determine which experiments aimed at fighting spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and other ailments will have to stop until the court fight is over. Medical researchers value stem cells because they are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body.
The National Institutes of Health told anxious researchers that if they've already received money this year – $131 million in total – they may keep doing their stem cell work but that no new money can be given out.
That means 22 projects due to get yearly checks in September, another $54 million worth, “will be stopped in their tracks,” NIH Director Francis Collins said. Dozens more proposals for new research won't get a hearing.
“This decision has just poured sand into the engine of discovery,” Collins said.
However, the ruling drew praise from the Alliance Defense Fund, a group of Christian attorneys who helped with the lawsuit filed by two researchers against the administration rules.
“The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments – prohibited by federal law – that destroy human life,” said Steven H. Aden, the group's senior legal counsel. “The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos.”
Monday's court ruling is broader than first thought because it would prohibit even the more restricted stem cell research allowed for the past decade under President George W. Bush, according to the White House and scientists.
And how quickly any appeal could go through may determine how much is lost permanently.
“These cells are notoriously finicky and you have to take care of them every day,” said Dr. Jonathan Moreno, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo: President Barack Obama