U.S. Judge Dismisses Lawsuit That Threatened Stem-Cell Research

July 27, 2011

The federal government can continue to finance research into embryonic stem cells, after a judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to stop such grants from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ended the suit, a strange turn of events since he weighed in last year on the side of the plaintiffs with an injunction against federal financing. The suit asserted that federal support for the research violated a 1996 law prohibiting government spending when an embryo is damaged or destroyed.

At stake is about $70-million in NIH grants, much of which goes to university researchers.

The suit has followed a twisted legal path. Judge Lamberth's original injunction was quickly overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and this past April, that same court voided his injunction permanently.

But the lawsuit continued in Judge Lamberth's court, as the two scientists who originally brought it—James L. Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Theresa A. Deisher, president of the Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, in Seattle—pressed their claim.

That claim ended on Wednesday, as far as Judge Lamberth was concerned. In a 38-page ruling, he wrote that "the NIH reasonably interpreted" an executive order by President Obama directing it to remove some restrictions on the support of stem-cell research. The agency simply made rules in line with that order, the judge said, and was not responsible for interpreting the 1996 law.

Supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research applauded the ruling. Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a written statement that the "AAAS is very pleased" with the ruling, and the "scientific consensus is that embryonic-stem-cell research is an extremely promising approach to developing more effective diagnostics and treatments for devastating conditions such as diabetes, spinal-cord injuries, and Parkinson's disease."

But lawyers for Mr. Sherley and Ms. Deisher said the saga was not over. Steven H. Aden, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, one of several groups supporting the suit, said that "we intend to review all of our options for appeal of this decision." In a written statement, he said that "Americans should not be forced to pay for experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments, and violate federal law."