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Appeals court puts stem cell funding ban in limbo

Scientists in Maryland don’t agree on what an appellate court’s ruling to temporarily lift a ban on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research means for them.

“This is good news,” Curt Civin, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said. “It means the NIH is back in the business of giving out grants for embryonic stem cell research.”

But, the temporariness of the appellate court’s ruling and the possibility of protracted legal battles leaves some in the field unsure of how to proceed.

“I think it just adds to the confusion,” Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund Director Dan Gincel said. “It’s an on-again, off-again and on-again situation. No one knows what to expect anymore.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington put the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth on hold as it reviews the ban. Lamberth had ruled in August that the work violates a 1996 federal law that bars federal funding of research in which human embryos may be destroyed. The U.S. Justice Department had appealed the ruling, saying the ban would harm scientific progress.

The National Institutes of Health on Friday said embryonic stem cell research, grants, and funding reviews at the NIH have resumed. Embryonic stem cells can grow into any kind of tissue and may have the potential to accelerate a range of research.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins and other institutions are continuing their work using federal dollars they already have, in addition to money from state agencies and philanthropies, Ted Dawson, the co-director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering in Baltimore, told Bloomberg News. Because of the ruling, “we have a little bit of time to make contingency plans,” he said.

“We’re very happy with the decision but we’re in limbo,” Dawson said. Scientists working in this area are asking themselves, “Is this something I want to continue to stake my career on?” he said.

In March 2009, President Barack Obama reversed an executive order of former President George W. Bush to allow research on cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be disposed of after in vitro fertilization procedures. In his ruling, Lamberth said the administration was attempting to separate the derivation of the embryonic stem cells from research on them, and “the two cannot be separated.”

Lamberth’s order would prevent the National Institutes of Health from acting on grant applications that have been reviewed, and from considering dozens of other applications that are in the review process, the U.S. wrote last week. It may take as long as eight months to reinitiate the review process for grant applications, the U.S. said.

Opponents of federal stem cell funding have until Sept. 14 to file a response, and the U.S. can submit a response on Sept. 20, the appeals court said.

Last Tuesday, Lamberth denied a U.S. request to reconsider his ruling.

Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and chairman of the Senate health committee and the appropriations subcommittee that funds medical research, said Friday’s order was “outstanding news.”

“Obviously, this is not the end of the legal process,” Harkin said in a statement. “But it’s a positive sign that Judge Lamberth’s ruling will ultimately be overturned.”

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