Doctors and researchers involved in embryonic-stem-cell experiments in Maryland and nationwide fear that potentially life-saving discoveries are being jeopardized by a judge who has blocked federal funding for such research.
Grants from a state fund for stem-cell research are not affected, but federal research funds that flow to institutions such as the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University would be cut off. That could affect a $500,000 experiment conducted by researchers in labs at both universities.
The researchers say that embryonic stem cells are promising because they can grow into many kinds of cells, which can be used to treat disease and repair organs.
"This ruling turns the tap off on cells than can become any cell in the body," said Dr. Curt Civin, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "With this research, diseases could be fixed or prevented."
A year ago, President Barack Obama had eased restrictions put in place by the Bush administration on embryonic-stem-cell lines. Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia said Monday that violated a federal ban on funds being used to destroy embryos.
Work in labs across the country came to a halt for most of Tuesday as Obama administration officials sought to interpret the judge's ruling
By late afternoon, the National Institutes of Health began telling grant recipients that Justice Department officials determined that projects could continue until annual grants expire.
Researchers could not immediately say if funding for the Maryland/Hopkins project has been renewed. They have been comparing the red blood cells that develop from adult and embryonic stem cells and those made from skin and blood to determine how each can best be used.
Almost 200 other projects across the country valued at about $167 million have just been renewed and work can continue on them for now, according to the NIH. But another 22 experiments valued at about $54 million expire in September and the review of dozens more in the pipeline can't proceed until the issue is resolved by the courts or Congress.
The Justice Department said it would appeal the court's decision, and some members of Congress are discussing legislation that would effectively override the judge's ruling.
NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said in a conference call Tuesday afternoon that he was stunned by the ruling. He feared that some researchers would leave the country or switch to other fields and leave "one of the most promising areas of research" for many diseases without study.
"This decision has poured sand into the engine of discovery," he said.
Civin said he dreads going back to the Bush era, when the lab had to carefully label media, or food for cells, to ensure it was used on the projects according to their funding. Worse, he said, would be having no stem cell lines available to use with federal funding.
Years ago, President George W. Bush had sought a compromise on the use of embryos, which some believe are human life that should not be destroyed through research. He allowed several lines made from embryos in existence before 2001 to be used and thwarted attempts to change the law. The embryos largely are leftover from in vitro fertilization cycles.
In 2009, Obama issued an executive order allowing more embryos to be turned into research lines after the couples donating them had consented. There are now about 75 lines, according to NIH. Couples' other options were to donate them to other couples, continue to store them or destroy them.
Researchers had hailed the Obama order because it made many more line available.
That's why the ruling Monday was so disappointing for researchers such as Dr. Stephen Desiderio, director of the Institute for Cell Engineering's immunobiology program at Hopkins.
He couldn't say how many projects at Hopkins were in immediate jeopardy, but he said the university has several ongoing stem cell experiments and the federal government backs much of the work.
The judge's ruling on the Bush stem cell lines wasn't clear, saying only that embryos used in research would be destroyed in violation of law. Justice officials said they believe that those original stem cell lines would also be off limits. (The plaintiffs who remain on the lawsuit that led to the ruling are adult stem cell researchers who say funding embryonic stem cell research means more competition for funds.)
Desiderio does note that Maryland is one of a handful of states with substantial funds dedicated to stem-cell research. This fiscal year, the state has dedicated $10.4 million, and the University of Maryland and Hopkins are major recipients. That money is not affected by the ruling, nor is private funding of embryonic-stem-cell research.