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Scientists: New Stem Cell Ruling is "Absolutely Devastating"

This post originally appeared on the Washington Monthly. Legal experts and policy specialists are still trying to sort out the implications of yesterday's preliminary injunction, but by all indications, it's a major blow to American medical research and scientific advancement.
A federal district judge on Monday blocked President Obama's 2009 executive order that expanded embryonic stem cell research, saying it violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos. The ruling came as a shock to scientists at the National Institutes of Health and at universities across the country, which had viewed the Obama administration's new policy and the grants provided under it as settled law. Scientists scrambled Monday evening to assess the ruling's immediate impact on their work. "I have had to tell everyone in my lab that when they feed their cells tomorrow morning, they better use media that has not been funded by the federal government," said Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children's Hospital Boston, referring to food given to cells. "This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order." In his ruling, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that his temporary injunction returned federal policy to the "status quo," but few officials, scientists or lawyers in the case were sure Monday night what that meant.
The court order, delivered by a notoriously conservative Reagan appointee, seems intent on turning back the clock many years. Ian Millhiser explained, "Essentially, Judge Lamberth claims that all ESC research cannot be funded because it requires scientists to build upon previous research that involved the destruction of an embryo, but it's difficult to square this decision with Supreme Court precedent. Under Chevron v. NRDC, judges are normally supposed to defer to an agency's reading of a federal law unless the agency's interpretation is entirely implausible, and the Obama administration quite plausibly read the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to only prohibit federal funding of the actual destruction of an embryo -- not federal funding of subsequent ESC research." Certainly, the ambiguity doesn't help. Lamberth' injunction leaves unclear exactly what medical researchers are supposed to do when they show up for work this morning -- do scientists now have to operate under Bush-era rules, or does the order turn the clock back to pre-2001? Is all research regarding embryonic stem cells illegal? Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said the ruling was "devastating to the hopes of researchers and patients who have been waiting so long for the promise of stem cell therapies." Amy Comstock Rick, immediate past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, struck a similar note, calling yesterday's news "absolutely devastating." "We were really looking forward to research finally moving forward with the full backing of the NIH. We were really looking forward to the next chapter when human embryonic stem cells could really be explored for their full potential. This really sets us back," Rick said. "Every day we lose is another day lost for patients waiting for cures." Others can speak to the legal proceedings with more expertise than I can, and it was at least somewhat heartening to see one lawyer weigh in describing the judge's order as "quite vulnerable; it's not on solid ground at all." I'd just note as an aside, though, that the breakdown in the Senate's ability to fill judicial vacancies often has sweeping national and international implications -- in the matter of medical research, possibly even issues of life and death.