We kind of take for granted these days that embryonic stem cell research can proceed without any restrictions, at least at the federal level. However, in the early days of blogging here on The Niche the big debate and battle were over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Things got very complicated and for a time the funding was illegal.
We should learn from this science history because things could easily go back to that restrictive atmosphere again. Science is not in a bubble from ideology.
So let’s take a quick look back at how the US ended up banning funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research for a time. We’ll do this by thumbing through key posts here on The Niche.
How did the ban on embryonic stem cell research happen?
A federal judge Royce Lamberth played a key role in the situation. At issue was something called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that blocked (and still blocks) funding of research where human embryos are destroyed. Does generation of hESC lines count? Use of those lines?
Drs. James Sherley and Theresa Deisher filed suit to block this kind of research funding. In August 2010 Lamberth issued a ruling with an injunction blocking NIH funding here.
Appeals followed back and forth going up the chain of courts. I covered them here on The Niche. If memory serves, during this tumultuous time there was a period of more than a month when it was illegal for NIH to fund hESC research and even grants containing hESC research could not even be reviewed. Eventually the courts decided to allow NIH funding of hESC research.
Here are some key The Niche posts on major events in this saga:
- Sept. 2010. Appeals Court Stays Injunction, ES cell research remains legal
- April 2011. Victory for science and patients: what the appeals court ruling means
- July 2011. Judge dismisses ES cell lawsuit! Victory for patients and science
- Sept. 2011. Stem cell opponents appeal the ruling against them in federal case: what does this mean?
- Aug. 2012. Analysis: what does the federal court embryonic ruling really mean & what’s next? In regard to that ruling, the post starts, “Today the US Federal Court of Appeals via a 3-judge panel ruled in favor of continued NIH funding of human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR).” After this funding resumed.
- April 2016. I wrote a kind of a “where are they now?” post — Where are top ES cell foes James Sherley and Theresa Deisher now? Dr. Sherley at times submits comments on posts here on The Niche and I wouldn’t be surprised if one pops up on this current post.
State restrictions on embryonic stem cell research
Of course, efforts to block hESC research manifested at the state and federal level. An early post was on such efforts in Oklahoma.
Feb. 2011. “Oklahoma leaders: ES cell research is not OK”
A core idea behind people trying to ban hESC research is that a fertilized egg is an equal human being to all the people walking around the planet. One of the other earliest relevant posts I did here was about this idea of early embryo personhood.
There have been a variety of organizations trying to ban hESC research funding or even hESC research entirely. One was the Witherspoon Institute. Here I posted about them.
Jan. 2012. “Secrets of the Witherspoon Gang”
You can see that I was pretty aggressive back then with that title and in going after groups that were trying to stop hESC research. I definitely wouldn’t call them a “gang” these days.
The Vatican has played an important role in opposing embryonic stem cell research funding. They’ve had a variety of their own adult stem cell meetings and here was a guest report from one of them, where hESC research data were verboten:
Looking ahead: will other kinds of research be banned?
Now in 2020 and looking to the future, research on embryonic stem cells could still be banned by the Trump administration, which has recently blocked fetal tissue research. The fetal tissue block in turn has impeded some COVID-19 research.
More broadly, the extent to which governments should block research or funding of certain kinds of research is tricky.
The issue keeps coming up such as with CRISPR of human embryos for reproductive use. While I favor a temporary moratorium on germline human CRISPR, I don’t favor a legal ban (which is actually technically in place in the US now), as that would likely become political and perhaps too restrictive.
One big lesson from the ES cell experience is that scientists need to be advocates too and they shouldn’t count on their research always being legal or allowed to move forward with political restrictions.