AAAS Expresses Strong Concerns Regarding Stem Cell Ruling

AAAS today expressed strong concerns that a legal ruling blocking federally funded human embryonic stem cell research will badly delay medical progress that could someday save lives and treat devastating injuries and illness.

The uncertainty created by the 23 August ruling of U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth “is bound to be tremendously disruptive to researchers endeavoring to advance human embryonic stem cell research to improve human quality of life,” said Albert Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS.

In particular, he noted, “It is unclear what is meant, within the language of the ruling, by bringing federal policy back to the `status quo.’”

The AAAS Board of Directors has previously affirmed the promise of human embryonic stem cell research for alleviating the suffering of many Americans. In a 2007 statement, for example, the Board concluded: “The scientific consensus is that embryonic stem cell research is an extremely promising approach to developing more effective treatments for devastating conditions like diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and Parkinson’s disease.”

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science, also has noted that the versatility of embryonic stem cells, which are “pluripotent” and thus can turn into any cell in the human body, have shown particular promise for advancing medical research. Recent advances with non-embryonic stem cells may hold promise, too, but those research efforts remain preliminary. “Federal funding is essential for both adult and embryonic stem cell research,” Leshner has said.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has estimated that the federal investment in non-embryonic human stem cell research in fiscal year 2011 is likely to amount to $358 million, versus $126 million for human embryonic stem cell research.

On 9 March 2009, Leshner had written to President Obama, thanking him for the executive order lifting a prior ban on human embryonic stem cell research. In the letter, Leshner noted that stem cell research “holds great promise for many millions of people around the world,” including patients, their families, and physicians, as well as scientists.

More than a half-million Americans had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease as of 2009, according to the National Institute on Aging. An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 people were reported to have spinal cord injuries in the United States, and the American Diabetes Association said that 23.6 million U.S. children and adults had some form of diabetes. Human embryonic stem cell research may someday help improve patients’ lives, AAAS has noted.

Teich commended the U.S. Administration and the Justice Department for acting quickly to announce its intention to appeal Lamberth’s ruling and to clarify its impact on researchers. Although the ruling will freeze any future federal support for human embryonic stem cell research, including approved and not-yet-funded grants, NIH announced that scientists who are already funded need not stop their work. “It is meager consolation, but at least projects now underway can continue until current funds expire,” Teich noted.

According to a news report by ScienceInsider’s Jocelyn Kaiser, “fifty grants awaiting peer review have been set aside; another dozen or so grants totaling $15 million to $20 million that had passed the first stage of peer review and were headed to NIH advisory councils will also be pulled aside. Another 22 grants, totaling $54 million in funding, that were up for annual renewal in September are also on hold. NIH also canceled a planned meeting today of an advisory board that was looking at whether to add more cell lines to those approved for NIH funding.”

Some 200 grants, already awarded this year to provide $131 million, are “safe for now but could be at risk when they come up for their annual renewal in the coming months,” Kaiser reported.

The NIH further has posted a statement to its grantees.

Read Joceyln Kaiser’s report at ScienceInsider.

The AAAS Communicating Science program maintains a list of general questions and answers about stem cells.

In addition, an online policy briefing is available from the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress.