Stem cell legislation leaves scientists in limbo

Reversals in federal funding of University stem cell research have left the fate of current University grant applications unclear.

By Burke Frank

Reversals in federal funding of University stem cell research have left the fate of current University grant applications unclear and could impact the long term viability of the scientists’ work, according to a University researcher.

The most recent, a September 28 ruling by an appellate court, stayed a District of Columbia federal court injunction that forbade federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. But the scientists feel they are in limbo.

“As we go through this process of stopping and going and stopping and going, it really retards our ability to make decisions based on science,” said John Cunningham, a University researcher who studies blood diseases, in an interview with Chicago Public Radio.

Cunningham said in the interview that he wants to research the effect of embryonic stem cells on leukemia. He was not available for comment.

The University currently performs no research on embryonic stem cells, according to Medical Center spokesman John Easton, who offered no further comment.

But researchers like Cunningham, whose webpage calls him a leader in pediatric stem cell transplantation, have applied for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to use embryonic stem cells in their research.

In March 2009, President Obama signed an executive order removing restrictions on embryonic stem cell research created under the Bush administration. Under the Bush agreement, scientists receiving federal funding could experiment on existing stem cell lines—cells cultivated from one embryo—but could not create new ones, strictly limiting opportunities for research.

The Obama order, well received among scientists, permitted the creation of new lines, which increased in number from 21 to 75 through August 2010.

“For years [scientists] have contended with research limits that prevent innovation but do not serve a clear moral purpose,” wrote medicine professor Janet Rowley (B.Phil ’44, B.S. ’46, M.D. ’48) in the March 23, 2009 edition of US News & World Report. Rowley served on President Bush’s Council of Bioethics.

But the D.C. federal court order this August found Obama’s decision in violation of the Dickey-Weber Amendment, a 1996 law that prohibits federal funding for research in which embryos are destroyed.

The most recent reversal, should allow the NIH to continue funding embryonic stem cell research, but the fate of embryonic stem cell research is still uncertain.

State and private funding for the research have been limited — three years ago the Illinois Senate voted to fund embryonic stem cell studies in the state, but a weak economy and budget deficits left no money for the programs.