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Stem cell research: Court gives Obama a victory, but policy still on trial

The White House hails the ruling by a divided appeals court to permit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. At issue still is whether Obama's policy violates a 1996 congressional ban.

By Staff writer / April 29, 2011

A microscopic view shows smooth muscle cells derived from human embryonic stem cells showing the nuclei (blue) and proteins of the cytoskeleton (green). These cells could one day be used to replace smooth muscle of the blood vessels, bladder, intestines or uterus. US President Barack Obama has lifted restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research and a federal appeals court has agreed.

Alexey Terskikh/Burnham Institute for Medical Research/California Institute for Regenerative Medicine/Reuters/File

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A divided federal appeals court handed the Obama administration a significant victory on Friday when it reversed a judge’s ruling that sought to block government funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

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The action by the appeals court lifts a cloud that has hovered over a segment of the medical research community since August when a federal judge in Washington ruled that President Obama’s expansion of stem cell research had violated a congressional ban on using taxpayer money for research in which a human embryo is destroyed.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for our scientists and patients around the world who stand to benefit from the groundbreaking medical research they’re pursuing,” said White House spokesman Nick Papas.

Human embryonic stem cell research is a sensitive subject that has divided US public opinion. Supporters say it may yield major medical breakthroughs, while opponents view it as a version of abortion and a slippery slope to human cloning.

At issue before the appeals court was whether US District Judge Royce Lamberth was correct in August when he ordered the government to stop funding embryonic stem cell research projects. His ruling had been stayed pending appeal, allowing research projects to continue.

On Friday, the appeals court voted 2 to 1 to vacate his preliminary injunction.

'Victory for patients'

“We are thrilled,” said Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington, D.C., a bipartisan organization that supports stem cell research.

“This is a victory for patients all across America,” she said in a statement. “This is also great news for the scientific community, so that they may continue to apply for grants and know their research will be able to move forward.”

“The opinion is significant because the contrary result – an order freezing use of federal funds on research on existing stem cell lines – could have jeopardized much of the incredibly important research underway,” said Abbe Gluck, a professor at Columbia Law School.

At issue was whether the Obama administration and the National Institutes of Health were complying with the 1996 congressional ban.

Each administration dating to President Clinton has grappled with the ethical, legal, and public policy challenges of human embryonic stem cell research, as has Congress.

At the center of the debate over government funding of embryonic stem cell science is the issue of the potential destruction of human embryos. The process of developing new cells for research can lead to the destruction of the embryo. Advocates of the research, however, say the stem cells are harvested from embryos that are created through in vitro fertilization and are slated for destruction after not being implanted. Researchers say embryonic stem cells can also be harvested from placental cord blood.

There are no legal restrictions banning the destruction of embryos in privately-funded stem cell research. But researchers complain that there are few sources of private funding.

Bush allowed limited research

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