WASHINGTON — The government said Friday it's back in the business of funding embryonic stem cell research – at least for now – after an appeals court temporarily lifted a judge's ban.
The National Institutes of Health said it is resuming its own research and will again evaluate applications from scientists who are seeking taxpayer money to do the work, a process that has been frozen since late last month.
An appeals court on Thursday temporarily stayed a judge's preliminary order barring that funding until it could hear full arguments in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, the NIH said it is lifting its suspension of all grants and contracts involving use of the cells.
"We are pleased with the court's interim ruling, which will allow promising stem cell research to continue" while the court battle is waged, said the NIH's statement.
Scientists who already had received NIH grants had been told to continue working until their dollars ran out, but that 22 projects due to get yearly checks in September would have to find other money.
Now the question is whether the NIH will finish the reviews required for those projects during what could be only a temporary reprieve. No matter what, the case is certain to be bouncing around the court system for many months before there's a final resolution.
"We believe it's a shame that they would rush to push funding of embryonic stem cell research, and a waste of taxpayer money," said Steven H. Aden, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is involved with the lawsuit that challenged the government funding.
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body, and researchers hope one day to harness that power in ways that cure spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and other ailments.
Culling them from embryos left over after fertility treatment kills a days-old embryo. A 1996 law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars in work that harms an embryo, so batches have been culled using private money. But those batches can reproduce in lab dishes indefinitely, and government policies say using taxpayer dollars to work with the already created batches is permissible.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth disagreed, in a sharply worded preliminary injunction in which he argued that the research violated the intent of the 1996 law. Lamberth left little doubt that he is inclined to issue a final order barring funding, which will set off a new round of appeals.
Amid the back-and-forth, researchers are struggling to figure out how to secure long-running experiments.
"I take no solace in the ruling because so much uncertainty remains about the future of human stem cell research," said Dr. George Daley, a leading stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital Boston. "I won't rest peacefully until there is a clear and unambiguous vote of support from the Congress for this vital research."
Congress twice passed legislation specifically calling for tax-funded stem cell research, which President George W. Bush vetoed. Some Democrats are considering whether to try the legislation again.
The lawsuit was filed by two scientists who argued that President Barack Obama's expansion of the number of stem cell lines available for government funding jeopardized their ability to win grants to research adult stem cells – ones that have already matured to create specific types of tissues – because of extra competition.
Many scientists believe the more flexible embryonic cells have more promise, but lots of work is under way with both kinds. The NIH's estimated budget for next year would spend more than three times as much on research for adult stem cells as embryonic ones, said Patrick Clemins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.