WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dr. James Sherley, whose lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health has threatened to stall human embryonic stem cell research, has challenged authority before but has also been honored by the NIH itself for his work.
Sherley is a plaintiff in the case that prompted a federal district court judge to issue an injunction against the NIH on Monday, saying government funding of human embryonic stem cell research violates federal law.
Sherley directs adult stem cell research at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Massachusetts and is an eminent scientist in his own right.
Until the court case against stem cells, he was perhaps best known for staging a hunger strike in 2007 to protest against a decision by his former employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to deny him tenure.
Sherley, who is black, accused MIT of racism. Several white professors at the prestigious university supported him — including genomics researcher George Church, who also recruited Sherley for his Personal Genome Project to sequence the entire DNA maps of several volunteers and post the details publicly on the Internet.
Another senior MIT staffer, Frank Douglas, who is black, resigned in support of Sherley.
Sherley left MIT for his current position, where he pursues research using adult stem cells — cells found in the body that are immature and that can lead to a variety of different tissue types, but which are not as pliable as embryonic stem cells, which are taken from days-old human embryos.
Sherley is an award-winning researcher, with a 1993 Pew Scholar award and a 2006 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award under his belt. “Sherley is using his Pioneer Award to enable a new era of cellular medicine by developing routine methods for the production of several types of human adult stem cells with clinical potential,” the NIH entry on his prize reads.
The NIH awards help pay for research considered cutting edge and risky.
Sherley’s suit against the NIH alleges that, by funding embryonic stem cell research, it unfairly reduces the funding available for research such as his. The NIH has denied this, saying all its grants are made on merit. He also says that embryonic stem cell research destroys human life.
Sherley makes no secret of his opposition to human embryonic stem cell research, and has also written pieces arguing against cloning research.
What does he want from NIH?
“That they cease and desist from promoting and supporting unethical human subjects research; and that they affirm once and for all time what all competent biological scientists and physicians know: ‘Human embryos are living human beings,’” Sherley said by e-mail in June, after an appeals court ruling on his case.
Sherley has not been reachable for comment since the Monday decision.
“We continue to apply for NIH funding to support our research to enable greater use of human adult stem cells for treatment and cures of debilitating conditions like diabetes, liver failure, and life-altering injuries,” he added.
“Each time a human embryonic stem cell research grant is funded and a human adult stem cell research grant is not, patients lose to unethical research that is also a waste of the scarce dollars available for biomedical research. Not only is human adult stem cell research being compromised by the funding diverted to human embryonic stem cell research, so is all other ethically responsible human disease research.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman