October 1, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Interpreting Judge’s Embryonic Stem Cell Ruling

judge royce lamberth, embryonic stem cell research ban
Judge Royce Lamberth, who issued an injunction on federal funding of ES cell research.

U.S. Federal Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed the lawsuit of two self-proclaimed “adult stem cell” researchers against the government to block federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. (update: you may find a 2020 take on this whole saga to be of interest).

Lamberth was the one who originally seemed to buy into the arguments of the plaintiffs that they were up against unfair competition at NIH and that embryonic stem cell research was really part of the same experiment, the same research as the original derivation of the ES cell lines so many years ago. Lamberth even argued that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed with their case.

It is therefore ironic to see that it is Lamberth himself who brings this story to a close (although it could be reopened in one final appeal–see below).

What does this really mean?

First of all, researchers working on human ES cells can breathe a sigh of relief because at least for the time being, this case is over. Really over!

Second, while the case is over, the plaintiffs can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but I think the tea leaves “or Tea Party leaves” are clearly visible now that their odds of success are extremely low. This may not stop them from going to the Supremes, who are 5-4 conservative, but my prediction is that that Court would refuse to hear the case. It is possible that given the sometimes politically motivated and sometimes even right wing extreme nature of some members of the Supreme Court that they might hear the case and even rule in favor of the plaintiffs, but I think that is now a long shot. Even if that were to happen it would not be for a long time.

Third, while we are in this period of now relative stability for this field of research, it is time to codify into US law the legality of federal funding ES cell research. There is a bill in the works to this effect. However, given the reckless and self-destructive behavior of the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, which seems inclined to say “no” to everything, I think there is basically zero chance of such a bill passing. That does not mean we should give up hope, but rather we have to be realistic. Such a bill is unlikely to pass before 2012.

Finally, I think this lawsuit against ES cells was about more than ES cells. The two researchers who were the plaintiffs in the case were really harming science more generally and were trying to push their own moral agenda upon the rest of the country. With the dismissal of this case, Science (with a big “S” meaning the field generally) has won a big victory and so have patients across the U.S. who might be helped by this important research. NIH has also won a victory in that there is now legal precedent against researchers filing cases of unfair competition against NIH when their grants are not funded.

All in all, a very good day!

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