Letters to the Editor

Ruling muddles stem-cell law

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the Kansas City Star.

A lone federal judge has, for the moment, slammed the door on new government funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's injunction serves notice that the quest for medical cures in our nation is still precariously ensnarled in politics, competing interests and legal ambiguities. Congress and the Obama administration must work swiftly to untangle this knot.

They could best do that by clarifying legislation known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. First passed in 1996 and renewed annually as part of the federal budget, the amendment prohibits federal funding for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death ..."

Lamberth unfortunately decided that ban is being violated, even though scientists generally obtain lines of stem cells from private sources, and only use federal funds for subsequent research.

Embryonic stem-cell lines are derived from surplus embryos created by in-vitro fertilization procedures. If not used for research, most of those embryos are frozen indefinitely or discarded.

Lamberth appears to be applying a sweeping interpretation to the amendment. But rather than delay scientific research while grinding through a legal appeal, Congress could rewrite the law to clearly allow federal funding for research on embryonic cell lines.

It should do so, and quickly. Lamberth's injunction negates the more permissive policy on embryonic stem-cell research that President Obama enacted last year. It calls into question whether federal funding can be used for research on the limited number of stem-cell lines approved by President George W. Bush.

For practical purposes, the short-term effect of the federal ruling is limited in Kansas and Missouri. The sole researcher using embryonic stem-cells in Kansas is Kenneth Peterson, a molecular biologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Peterson is researching how hemoglobin is made, in hopes of advancing cures for blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia. He is working with embryonic stem cells obtained during the Bush administration.

Michael Roberts, a scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is studying embryonic stem cells in hopes of learning why pregnancies fail at the implantation stage. His stem-cell lines also date to the Bush administration.

"Everybody's totally confused at the moment," Roberts said of the judge's ruling. He said he would attempt to use private funds for his research until the picture becomes clearer.

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City is not currently doing research with embryonic stem cells. But William Neaves, president emeritus, called the ruling "regrettable" and predicted the delay on other research nationwide would be temporary.

Peterson, the KU researcher, said he didn't think his work would be immediately affected. But the threat to the research is disturbing, he said.

"What most scientists think is, you don't want to leave any stone unturned. We simply don't know yet what discoveries might come from those cells."

What we do know is that Congress must summon the political will to clear up the legal ambiguities.

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