UCI Evades Harsh Ruling

Since late August, the nation once again finds itself in a needless tug-of-war with itself over embryonic stem cell research after U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth suspended the Obama administration’s recent effort to expand funding for embryonic stem cell research. In March 2009, President Obama reversed former President George W. Bush’s ban on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells; a move that was widely lauded by many who realized the potential of using embryonic stem cells to treat a wide range of diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Lamberth referred to the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to back up his move. His ruling said that all embryonic stem cell research involves destroying embryos, which violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment included in federal spending bills. To combat this, President Obama’s policy allows federal support for studies involving new lines of cells derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization and donated by couples who no longer wanted them for the purpose of creating a child. Although the policy was intended to avoid any conflict with the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by stipulating that the extraction of stem cells from embryos would occur without federal money, the distinction between deriving stem cells and studying them was, unfortunately, insufficient for Judge Lamberth.

Stem cell researchers now have no clear rules to follow in the course of their research. Should they backtrack to the compromise negotiated by former President Bush’s administration in 2001 that allowed research on 21 specific cell lines? Or is that research also banned?

It will be up to Congress to act quickly to address those questions and the judge’s concerns. The Justice Department promised a quick appeal but it could take several weeks for an appeals court to schedule a hearing, and then several months before it makes its decision. Thankfully, stem cell research here at UCI will not be strongly affected by the ruling because the university received funding through a $3 billion state initiative, private donations and $62.4 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). However, Alan Trounson, president of CIRM, noted that the ruling would have a large impact in California since 80 percent of their grantees hold NIH (National Insitutes of Health) grants.  If Lamberth’s ruling is upheld, only non-federal money would be allowed to fund stem cell research. The long-term effect of having delays for funding stem cell research is that fewer laboratories will be able to conduct stem cell research since they have to compete with each other for private donors. This will decrease the number of researchers in the field and also the number of up-and-coming stem cell researchers. Most importantly, slower progress Ń and even possibly no progress Ń  will be made in studies seeking treatment for diseases that are currently incurable since alternative methods will need to be pursued.

The ruling by Lamberth leaves embryonic stem cell research in disarray but favors religious conservatives who strongly advocate embryonic stem cell research as unethical. Because the research involves the disposal of discarded embryos at fertility clinics, embryonic stem cell research is viewed negatively by a coalition of groups, including several Christian organizations that believe that the basis of life begins at conception.

Although I respect the ground that religious conservatives hold with embryonic stem cell research, I must ask how feasible it really is for it to be applied. Since those embryos are destined to be thrown away at the fertility clinics, why not put a practical use to it? According to their logic, every embryo that is discarded from an abortion should be taken up by a female to preserve life.

Embryonic stem cell research takes advantage of the fact that there will be embryos donated by couples who no longer want them for the purpose of creating a child, no matter what. This is why it does not make any sense to me why the nation flip-flops on this type of research. It would be in researchers’ and future partients’ benefit if Lamberth had ruled differently. However, this, like other hot-button issues, will surely see the pendulum swing the other way again.

Kevin Phan is a fourth year biological sciences student. He can be reached at phankt@uci.edu.