Response to federal injunction on stem cell funding

August 25, 2010

Dear friends,

Back to square one.

Little could we have imagined that we would be writing to you about yet another governmental impediment to the development of stem cell-based treatments and cures that millions of Americans desperately await.

But sadly, as you know from the latest news reports, the Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has issued a temporary injunction barring the federal government from funding research on any human embryonic stem cell lines - including those approved by former President Bush in 2001.

We're not legal experts or political analysts, so it would be inappropriate for us to speculate on what the ultimate outcome of this case will be - though we are heartened to learn that the Obama Administration is planning an appeal.

But as scientists, we can tell you that this ruling is disastrous for our science and our hopes for a number of reasons.

First, this ruling means researchers all across the country must halt any plans for new work and carefully consider if their current work should continue given the uncertainty created by the injunction - undoubtedly meaning the loss of cell lines, of money, and of months, if not years of scientific progress.

Second, this reversal of a reversal sends a chilling message to young scientists just beginning, or planning on, careers in stem cell research. If they can't be sure their work will be eligible for government funding, there is a good chance many of them will, understandably, leave the field for careers in areas of research more sure of receiving what little funding NIH has to give.

And third, an aspect of this ruling has enormous import far beyond the field of stem cell science. One contention of the plaintiffs in this case is that the government's funding of embryonic stem cell research will result in less money available to fund research using adult stem cells. As we said already, we aren't attorneys, but  as scientists we can tell you that that line of argument is specious nonsense, and if it is upheld we can imagine it leading to all sorts of legal challenges of the funding of science. For instance, couldn't researchers studying left ventricular assist devices (LAVD) to support failing hearts argue that government funding of heart transplantation research would limit the funding for LVADs? Couldn't Alzheimer's researchers claim that an increase in the funding of cancer research would hurt their field? Where would this end?

Despite all this, we do have good news for you - the work of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute will continue to move forward as it has for the past six years. We have not canceled any HSCI-supported research; we are not changing our focus. We will achieve the goals we share with you of using human embryonic and adult stem cells, and iPS cells to develop cures and treatment for diabetes, cancer, ALS, Parkinson's, cardiovascular diseases and a host of other conditions that touch all our families.

However, this latest news serves as a stark reminder of how dependent we are upon your continuing support. You have made possible the advances achieved thus far. Your generosity carried us through the funding drought of the Bush Administration. And now more than ever,  we need your support if we are to continue on the path to cures.

We would very much like to hear your thoughts about this latest crisis, and we will keep you posted as events unfold in the days ahead.

With best wishes and continued thanks,

Douglas Melton, Ph.D.

David Scadden, M.D.

See also: 2010, Announcement