Outside editorial: Stem-cell setback

Posted: Monday, August 30, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

A glimmer of hope among those with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and other ailments that might be relieved with new treatments derived from embryonic stem cells was dimmed this week by a federal judge, whose injunction on federal funding for such research could not only jeopardize American medical science but the health of millions of patients worldwide. But the failure isn't just judicial - the ruling was based in part on a sound interpretation of an ill-considered law imposed by Congress.

Every year since 1996, Congress has routinely attached the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to appropriations bills, thus forbidding the federal government from funding "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed." President George W. Bush issued an executive order interpreting this to mean it was all right to fund research on stem-cell lines that had been created before 2001, but not after. His interpretation was broadened by President Obama, who separated the research into two parts: It would still be illegal to fund the creation of new stem-cell lines, which involves destroying embryos, but the government could award grants to researchers doing work on lines created by privately funded scientists practicing strict ethical standards.

The president's motives were admirable, but as U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled Monday, Obama's order subverted the will of Congress. It takes a logical leap to separate research on stem-cell lines from the creation of those lines, sort of like saying it's OK to do illegal research on monkeys as long as somebody else catches the animals for you. It wasn't enough for Obama to issue an executive order; he also should have pressured Congress to strip out the Dickey-Wicker Amendment - or to codify his interpretation of it.

That said, Lamberth's decision to issue a preliminary injunction is puzzling. His ruling favors plaintiffs James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, who perform research on adult stem cells and claimed they would be harmed by Obama's order because they would have to compete for funding against researchers working with embryonic stem cells. Bizarrely, Lamberth found in their favor even though by doing so he is directly harming their competitors. The judge explained that embryonic stem-cell researchers won't lose funding because his ruling "would simply preserve the status quo."

Yet that ignores the researchers working on at least 70 new embryonic lines approved for funding under Obama, and the projected $127 million allocated for them this year that Lamberth ordered frozen. Lamberth's blithe dismissal of disease sufferers - they won't be hurt by his injunction because the research isn't "certain" to result in cures - omits the fact that embryonic cells have great promise in treating diseases for which there is otherwise little hope, and his ruling will seriously delay the quest for cures.

The Justice Department is rightly appealing the injunction. Meanwhile, Congress should get rid of Dickey-Wicker, which polls show is opposed by a majority of Americans.

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