September 3, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Embryonic Stem Cell Researchers Reeling from Judge’s Decision

Political conservatives have often been stunned by lone judges overturning the will of the people.  This time, liberals in support of embryonic stem cell research are reeling from the decision of a federal judge that halts funding of such research that was recently energized by the President.
    Federal Judge Royce Lamberth’s August 23 ruling was based on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment of 1996 that prohibits funding for research that destroys human embryos.  Suddenly, researchers happily using NIH funds (National Institutes of Health) generously made available by the Obama administration (12/17/2008, 01/31/2009, 04/07/2009) are facing the cancellation of their work in mid-stream.
    Nature’s editors were up in arms.1  Not expecting appellate courts to overturn Lamberth’s injunction, they called for subscribers to pressure Congress to act swiftly:

Congress is unlikely to have a huge appetite for a bruising, highly polarizing debate in the weeks immediately preceding November’s midterm elections.  Yet time is of the essence, and a great deal is at stake.  The House may revert to Republican control in November, in which case action to affirm the funding would be highly unlikely….
    Congress should take up the issue speedily when it reconvenes mid-month.  And if ever there was a time for scientists to let members of Congress and the public know what they think, it is now.

The urgency seems strange, since most of the momentum is with ethically-untainted adult stem cell research (08/06/2010; see also list below).  Furthermore, embryonic stem cell (ESC) researchers are free to seek private or corporate funding.  Notwithstanding, reporters are acting as if a calamity has occurred.  Nature News told a tear-jerker about Candace Kerr, whose ESC research has been “thrown into limbo” by the judge’s ruling.  Similarly, PhysOrg printed a Stanford press release describing the woes of Joanna Wysocka, whose research has also been “thrown into an uncertain limbo” because of it.  (Presumably, some limbos are certain, and others are not.)
    Science Magazine’s editors said that U.S. research on ES cells has been thrown into a “tailspin” by the “controversial ruling” that has “left scientists across the country confused, upset, and angry.2  Even NIH director Francis Collins, an avowed Christian and theistic evolutionist, was upset.  He said, “This decision has just poured sand into that engine of discovery.”
    PhysOrg reported that the Obama administration reacted quickly to appeal the decision, arguing that “the scientific community and the taxpayers who have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on such research through public funding of projects which will now be forced to shut down and, in many cases, scrapped altogether.”  A White House spokesman said breathlessly, “We’re going to do everything possible to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of this injunction.”  In a similar refrain, New Scientist explored the options available to Congress to overturn this “shock court ruling that has frozen US government support for work on human embryonic stem cells.
Meanwhile, adult stem cell research is humming along as if nothing happened.  Here are ten examples of recent findings reported in the last week or two:

  1. Asymmetric cell division:  University of Oregon researchers have come closer to identifying how adult stem cells in fruit flies differentiate into specific cell types (see Science Daily).  PhysOrg said this was observed with live cell imaging.
  2. Stem cell factories:  Researchers at the University of Nottingham are perfecting the art of inducing adult cells into stem cells, reported PhysOrg.  “Large scale, cost-effective stem cell factories able to keep up with demand for new therapies to treat a range of human illnesses are a step closer to reality,” the article announced cheerfully without referring to embryos.
  3. Cell conversion:  The same issue of Nature that complained about the Lamberth ruling featured a success with adult stem cells.3  Richard P. Harvey reported that it may be possible to skip the inducement state altogether: “Scientists report the conversion of one type of differentiated cell, the fibroblast, into another – the cardiomyocyte.”  Embryos were not needed for this or other adult cell research, which can turn cells into an “embryonic stem-cell-like state.”  The application is good news for the disabled: “This approach may find use in regenerative strategies for the repair of damaged hearts.”
  4. Boob job:  Science Daily announced, “Adult Mammary Stem Cells in Mice Identified and Isolated for First Time.”  This discovery may aid the development of treatments for human breast cancer.
  5. Liver in the skin:  Imagine regenerating a liver from skin.  That’s what Science Daily reported: “Liver Cells Created from Patients’ Skin Cells.”  This might help many people, because “In the UK, liver disease is the fifth largest cause of death after cardiovascular, cancer, stroke, and respiratory diseases.”
  6. Lung stem cells:  Lung cancer is a scary diagnosis, because it metastasizes rapidly and often kills its victims.  PhysOrg reported hope for this leading cause of cancer deaths, because it now appears possible to identify lung stem cells gone awry and arrest them before they proliferate.
  7. Partners in health:  PhysOrg reported that “A study led by a researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University has revealed a unique ‘partnership’ between two types of bone marrow stem cells, which could lead to advances in regenerative medicine.”  This is a step toward re-growing damaged cells, tissues and organs.
  8. Different strokes:  Strokes may not have to be debilitating, thanks to research at the University of South Florida.  PhysOrg reported that a simulated stroke could be intercepted with adult stem cells.  “Human umbilical cord blood cells (HUCB) used to treat cultured rat brain cells (astrocytes) deprived of oxygen appear to protect astrocytes from cell death after stroke-like damage,” the article said.
  9. Leukemia link:  PhysOrg said that researchers at the University of California at San Francisco are coming closer to understanding how blood stem cells suffering from mutations can lead to leukemia.  “The discovery also suggests a possible therapeutic strategy, the scientists say, for reducing the risk of leukemia that results from chemotherapy used to treat solid tumors.”
  10. Smart heart ASCs:  PhysOrg reported on landmark work at the Henry Mayo Clinic that showed that “ rationally ‘guided’ human adult stem cells can effectively heal, repair and regenerate damaged heart tissue.”  Even stem cells benefit from intelligent design.

Examples of adult stem cell progress toward real benefits to people could be multiplied, but claims of positive results with embryonic stem cells often appear muted, tentative, and rare in the press.  PhysOrg reported that researchers at Columbia University have coaxed ES cells into some neuron cell subtypes, but any benefit to humans was put into a nebulous future: the insight “may prove useful for devising and testing future therapies for motor neuron diseases.”  PhysOrg also reported that “Natural lung material is promising scaffold for engineering lung tissue using embryonic stem cells,” but no clinical trials appear in the offing.
Update 09/09/2010: New Scientist reported, “An appeals court in Washington DC has granted a temporary stay … to the controversial injunction that last month froze government funding for future hESC research.”  This means that “US-government funding for research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) is back on � for now, at least.”  The article provided some background on the cause of the injunction: “The injunction came in response to action from two researchers working on adult stem cells … who oppose the use of hESCs on moral grounds.”


1.  Editorial, “A law in time?”, Nature 467, p. 7, 02 September 2010; doi:10.1038/467007a.
2.  Jocelyn Kaiser and Gretchen Voge, “Controversial Ruling Throws U.S. Research Into a Tailspin,” Science, 3 September 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5996, pp. 1132-1133, DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5996.1132.
3.  Richard P. Harvey, “Regenerative medicine: Heart redevelopment,” Nature 467, 39-40 (2 September 2010) | doi:10.1038/467039a.

The tear-jerking stories of scientists whose taxpayer-funded experiments on human embryos were interrupted by the judge’s decision are horrendous examples of biased reporting.  Does your heart bleed for scientists whose chance at the public teat might be cut short, and they might have to actually earn their money?  Do they realize that many people are appalled at the prospect of human embryos being cut up for research, and consider it immoral and a violation of the sanctity of human life?
    Let’s put the ESC researchers’ bleeding hearts in perspective with a little tale.  Picture a Nazi scientist working for the Max Planck Institute in 1938 wringing his hands over a shortage of prisoners to work on.  We’ll take Nature’s crybaby article and revise it for that context:

Human Experimentation Thrown Into Limbo by Prisoner Shortage [Fiction]
Gunther Monster was working late on 23 August when a postdoc sent him the headline about a newsreel story entitled: “Bad news for human experimentation researchers.”  Monster, a human experimenter at Max Planck Institute, says that as his eyes flew down the newspaper article, he thought: “This can’t be real.  This can’t be right.”  Earlier that day, in Berlin, a judge overturned an SS officer’s policy of providing prisoners without question, and had put a temporary stop on government supply of prisoners for research, pending resolution of a suit that is seeking to make the hold permanent (see ‘The legalese behind the funding freeze’).
    “I was devastated,” Monster says.  “It was a huge blow to the research I have spent so much time working on.”
    He summoned enough presence of mind to phone his lab technician, asking him to release 20 subjects first thing in the morning back to Auschwitz.  They were part of an experiment funded by the Max Planck Institute.  Then, recalls Monster, “I went home and stared at the walls and thought: ‘What am I going to do next?  What is going to sustain me for my job in the future?’”
    Monster is one of hundreds of researchers whose MPI-supported work has been thrown into legal limbo and financial jeopardy by the new policy….

…but the prisoners took some relief, however small, at their temporary respite.  Unfortunately, in America 2010, human embryos are not available for interviews about their feelings about the ruling for about 12 years.

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