Stem cell research funding called vital
Funding for human embryonic stem cells research was the focus of a congressional hearing Thursday. The future of the funding has been in question since a federal judge last month issued a temporary injunction barring the NIH from supporting the research. The judge, ruling in a case filed by two scientists who work on alternatives to the cells, said the funding violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bars federal funding for research that involves the destruction of human embryos.
The Obama administration appealed, and a higher court lifted the injunction while it considers the case. Another court hearing is scheduled later this month. In the meantime, while the NIH resumed funding the research, the case has thrown the field into turmoil.
Several members of Congress are pushing for legislation that would permanently sanction the funding.
At the start of a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) decried the uncertainty the court case has created for the field, which he said holds promise for treating a host of ailments. Harkin said the ruling was especially frustrating, coming at a time when the Obama administration had just started to increase federal support for such research.
"At last, we thought, our brightest young minds could enter this field without worrying that they'd go to the lab one day and find the doors ordered shut by someone in Washington, D.C.," Harkin said. "At last, we thought, we could begin to realize the promise of embryonic stem cell research."
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss), however, said the money would be better spent on other types of cells, such as stem cells obtained from adults. Wicker, who co-authored the law at issue in the funding, said that many Americans objected to their tax money being used for human embryonic research.
"This debate involves profound ethical and moral questions," Wicker said. "This is a matter of conscience for me and millions of Americans who are deeply troubled by the idea that their taxpayer dollars may be used to destroy another human life when there are other proven techniques out there available."
In his testimony Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said the NIH already spends more money on adult stem cells than embryonic stem cells. But Collins argued that continued federal support for embryonic stem cell research was crucial.
"Today there is a cloud hanging over this field," Collins said.
In their prepared remarks, two prominent stem cell researchers--George Daley at Harvard and Sean Morrison of the University of Michigan--disputed claims that other cells are equally good or perhaps even better. Both argued it was crucial to continue studying both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells and described the how the court case has affected their labs. Daley said the uncertainty had, for example, forced a doctoral student in his lab to abandon promising work on embryonic stem cells for sickle cell anemia. Daley said he himself faced losing his largest grant to study differences between embryonic stem cells and possible alternatives.
Here's a excerpt of his prepared testimony:
"With the recent upheavals, scientists have again been reminded that human ES [embryonic stem] cell research is on fragile and fickle footing. The cloud that hangs over the field saps enthusiasm for planning a long-term program of NIH grant-funded human ES cell research, which is the bedrock of most research careers."
The hearing was being webcast here.
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