WASHINGTON Stunned and disappointed Obama administration officials said on Tuesday they would appeal a federal court ruling that temporarily barred federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
The administration will ask the U.S. Court of Appeals to lift the preliminary injunction issued on Monday, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Current research worth about $131 million can go ahead, but research proposals being evaluated for potential funding will be "pulled out of the stack," National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said.
Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was calling a hearing for Thursday on the matter.
"This ruling should be appealed and I fully believe that it will be overturned. Embryonic stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans who are suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases, and it must be allowed to proceed," Harkin said in a statement.
Allowing federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research was one of the first acts of newly elected President Barack Obama last year, and exultant scientists applauded when he overturned predecessor George W. Bush's limitations on the science.
Supporters of human embryonic stem cell research say it is vital to carry it out alongside other types of stem cell research to understand how to transform cells into desired tissue types and treat diseases ranging from juvenile diabetes to blindness.
Opponents say it is wrong to destroy human embryos, even days-old embryos to be discarded from fertility clinics. In his ruling, Judge Royce Lamberth said legislation tacked onto the Health and Human Services spending authorization every year, called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, bans federal funding of all such research.
"Frankly, I was stunned, as was virtually everyone at NIH, by the judicial decision yesterday," NIH's Collins told reporters in a telephone briefing.
"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."
Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which supports all areas of stem cell research, said scientists would struggle to get money from private sources.
States such as California and Massachusetts fund and encourage embryonic stem cell research but cannot come close to matching the NIH purse.
"We are calling for an immediate end to Dickey-Wicker," Tipton said in a telephone interview.
"Do that and your problem is solved," Tipton added.
"This could be a great outcome for research freedom and for allowing scientists instead of politicians to make decisions."
Congress has come close in the past to passing bills that would explicitly encourage some types of human embryonic stem cell research, but many felt Obama's executive order blunted the need for legislation.
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 paid for much more adult stem cell research than embryonic stem cell research.
One of the researchers, Dr. James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Massachusetts, is an eminent scientist in his own right.
Until the court case against stem cells, Sherley, who is black, was perhaps best known for staging a hunger strike in 2007 to protest a decision by his former employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to deny him tenure. He accused MIT of racism.
(Additional reporting by Jim Vicini and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)