Stem cell uncertainty delays research: U.S. scientists

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 16, 2010 6:25pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Uncertainty over the legal standing of U.S. stem cell research is delaying work and confusing researchers, scientists said on Thursday.

They urged Congress to clarify laws on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research and complained about re-opening a debate that began more than 10 years ago.

"With the recent upheavals, scientists have again been reminded that human embryonic stem cell research is on fragile and fickle footing," Dr. George Daley of Harvard Medical School told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

But the original author of legislation limiting the research said no clarification was needed.

"This is a matter of conscience for me and millions of Americans who are deeply troubled by the idea that their taxpayer dollars may be used to destroy another human life when there are other proven techniques out there available," Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker, one of the authors of the Dickey-Wicker amendment that outlaws the use of federal funds to destroy embryos told the hearing.

Last month a federal judge ordered the U.S. government to temporarily stop paying for the research while a lawsuit went ahead. [ID:nN23213610]. The suit, filed by two researchers who opposed embryonic stem cell research on religious and ethical grounds, alleges that it is against the law for the U.S. National Institutes of Health to pay for the work.

A U.S. appeals court moved oral arguments on whether to lift the lower court injunction pending the full appeal to September 27 from September 24 to accommodate the parties.

The appeals court last week allowed the government to continue funding the human embryonic research pending a ruling on the injunction [ID:nN10264276].

Several members of Congress are working to settle the argument legally, noting that President Barack Obama's 2009 executive order on the issue did not go far enough.

COURTS OR CONGRESS

"When President Obama lifted the Bush administration's restrictions on stem cell research a year and a half ago, most of us thought this fight was finally over. At last, we thought, there was a new approach to scientific research in this country -- one that was dictated not by politics, but by the hope for cures," committee chair Tom Harkin, a Democratic senator from Iowa, told the hearing.

"I can say this: We've come too far to give up now. If we don't win this battle in the courts, we'll take it up in Congress," Harkin added.

Daley called the injunction last month "a major blow".

"I was justifiably confused by what the injunction meant for our research program, which depends heavily on federal grant dollars, and personally, I was deeply discouraged and worried for the future of human embryonic stem cell research," he said.

"I have been scrambling to come up with private funding so that I don't have to lay anyone off. "

Harkin asked National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins, who has been outspoken about his evangelical Christian beliefs, to address religious objections to the research, which involves the destruction of human embryos.

Collins said that "as a person of faith," he believed the benefits of using embryos destined to be thrown away by fertility clinics was an ethical choice.

He and other researchers said the U.S. government must fund all types of stem cell research and questioned arguments that so-called adult stem cell research is superior.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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