WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked government rules expanding stem cell research, a blow to the Obama administration that could stall potentially lifesaving research.
The nonprofit group Nightlight Christian Adoptions contends that the government's new guidelines will decrease the number of human embryos available for adoption. Nightlight helps individuals adopt human embryos that are being stored in fertilization clinics. The group provides domestic, international and embryo adoption services to families in all 50 states.
A federal appeals court had ruled that two fellow plaintiffs — doctors who do research with adult stem cells, James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa Deisher of AVM Biotechnology — were entitled to do so, prompting U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to reverse a decision he made in October.
Sherley and Deisher allege that the guidelines will result in increased competition for limited federal funding and will injure their ability to compete successfully for National Institutes of Health stem cell research money.
Federal law explicitly forbids use of taxpayer dollars to destroy a human embryo — and culling stem cells from an embryo does destroy the embryo. However, once created, these batches of stem cells, or lines, can reproduce indefinitely in lab dishes.
The Obama administration expanded the number of stem cell lines created with private money that federally funded scientists could research, up from the 21 that President George W. Bush had allowed to 75 so far. To qualify, the NIH insisted on evidence that the woman or couple who donated the original embryo did so voluntarily and were told of other options, such as donating to another infertile woman.
But Lamberth concluded that those filing the lawsuit have demonstrated a strong likelihood of success in arguing that the new government guidelines violate the intent of that law about federal funding of embryo destruction.
"As demonstrated by the plain language of the statute, the unambiguous intent of Congress is to prohibit the expenditure of federal funds on 'research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed,'" the judge wrote.
Having concluded that the law is unambiguous, "the question before the court is whether ESC research is research in which a human embryo is destroyed. The court concludes that it is," Lamberth added.
Stem cell research has the potential to produce breakthroughs in treating life-threatening conditions — from spinal cord injury to diabetes to Parkinson's — that have resisted traditional treatment. Scientists say they need to do research with embryonic stem cells as well as so-called adult ones because the former are more flexible, and the NIH is funding both types.
"This injunction blocks important research on how to unlock the enormous potential of human embryonic stem cells," said Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a group that treats infertility and does research with a variety of stem cell types. "It will be incredibly disruptive and once again drive the best scientific minds into work less likely to yield treatments for conditions from diabetes to spinal cord injury."
The NIH declined to comment, referring calls to the Justice Department.
In his ruling, Lamberth said the injury of increased competition that Sherley and Deisher would face because of the guidelines "is not speculative. It is actual and imminent. Indeed, the guidelines threaten the very livelihood of plaintiffs Sherley and Deisher."
Nightlight helps individuals adopt human embryos that are being stored in fertilization clinics. It began the program in 1997, using some of more than 400,000 frozen embryos.
AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.