Stem cell ruling a shock, US NIH head says

Tue Aug 24, 2010 5:22pm EDT

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* Research up for review to be frozen

* Ruling stops promising area of research, Collins says

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (Reuters) - A federal injunction against funding human embryonic stem cell research came as a shock, but will not stop more than $130 million worth of ongoing research, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said on Tuesday.

Collins said researchers who already have their grants in hand can continue with their work, despite the ruling that NIH funding violates the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment that bars the use of taxpayer dollars to destroy human embryos.

The Justice Department said on Tuesday the Obama administration will appeal the ruling. Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters the administration will ask the U.S. Court of Appeals to lift the preliminary injunction issued on Monday. [ID:nN24276123]

Before the appeal was announced, Collins said research proposals in the queue would be frozen.

A U.S. district court issued the preliminary injunction on Monday in a slap to the Obama administration's new guidelines on the sensitive issue. [ID:nN23213610]

"Frankly, I was stunned, as was virtually everyone at NIH, by the judicial decision yesterday," Collins told reporters in a telephone briefing.

But a quick check shows money already out the door cannot be pulled back -- a total of $131 million worth of grants, Collins said.

"We are reassuring those who already have grants that were funded that they can continue with their research," he said.

In one of his first acts after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that said the federal government could pay for work done using human embryonic stem cells, without actually paying for the task of making the cells using days-old human embryos.

He directed NIH to come up with an ethical process for paying for research that made sure, in part, that the embryos used came from fertility clinics and were destined to be thrown away otherwise. The goal was to answer critics who felt human lives, however tiny, were at risk.

SERIOUS DAMAGE"

The court ruling suggests this is not enough, and Collins said the impact will be profound.

"This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research, and just at the time that we were beginning to gain momentum," Collins said.

"Human embryonic stem cell research, done responsibly and ethically, is one of the most exciting opportunities to come along in a long time. And in just the last year we have made so much progress in getting this area expanded."

Collins said 50 applications being considered for federal funding were now being pulled out of the stack.

"Very promising research will not get done," Collins said. He said researchers would become discouraged and some may even leave the United States to do their work.

The suit was filed by two researchers who work with so-called adult stem cells, which are a different kind of stem cell found throughout the body, which are also considered promising. Collins said the NIH pays for much more adult stem cell research than embryonic stem cell research.

Collins said he cannot answer the legal merits of the case but said NIH and the Health and Human Services Department were working to fight back. "There are a lot of people who thought they were going to be on vacation working very hard," he said.

Earlier, White House spokesman Bill Burton said the Obama administration was exploring all possible avenues. [ID:nN24259242]

"The president said very plainly when he laid out his stem cell policy that this is important, potentially life-saving research that could have an impact on millions of Americans and people all around the world. He thinks that we need to do research. He put forward stringent ethical guidelines and he thinks that his policy is the right one," Burton said.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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