Embryonic stem cell research threatened by ban

Dozens of researchers at UNC could have their work permanently halted after a recent ban on human embryonic stem cell research.

A federal judge ruled Aug. 23 that the government may not fund research on embryonic stem cells in spite of a 2009 executive order by President Barack Obama lifting limitations placed on research by President George W. Bush.

Matt Fagan, director of UNC’s Human Embryonic Stem Cell Core Facility, said the Bush administration allowed research on 22 cell lines. Under Obama, that number had reached 75.

Fagan said there are about 10 separate research projects at UNC involving embryonic stem cells, and their research could be seriously harmed if the ruling survives an appeal by the Department of Justice.

“This isn’t the kind of research that can be put on pause,” he said, noting the sensitive nature of the cells mandates they be constantly taken care of, an expensive process.

“Any pause at all is hugely disruptive, if not crippling, to the research here.”

He said the ban could decrease the number of scientists choosing to study embryonic stem cells.

Researchers are still allowed to use private sources of funding, but Bob Lowman, associate vice chancellor for research, said it is unrealistic in the current economic climate.

“It’s going to be a real challenge,” he said. “Money is always tough, and now its particularly tough… We’ll have to look at each researcher individually.”

Lowman said the academic community was stunned by the decision to ban federal funding.

“The judge’s ruling in this case is very much out of step with what many others in this matter have concluded on their own,” he said, noting that attorneys general under presidents Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton had all allowed federal funding.

“It was a tremendous shock to all of us,” he said.

In the ruling, Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court wrote that federal funding violated the language of a Congressional rider banning the destruction of embryos. That rider was written two years before the 1998 discovery of embryonic stem cells.

In 1999, a judge ruled embryonic stem cells were not covered in that ban because they are not defined specifically as embryos.

“Had Congress intended to limit the (rider) to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo, like the derivation of (embryonic stem cells), or to research on the embryo itself, Congress could have written the statute that way,” Lamberth wrote.

“Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written.”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has come out strongly against the ruling.

The NIH, which distributes all federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, required embryos be used only for stem cell research if they were no longer needed for reproductive purposes and all other options for their use were explained to the donors.

Fagan said the University will continue to conduct research as the ban is appealed — but the future is uncertain.

“No one’s making plans for the future.”

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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