NOT SO FAST
Providers fear big hit on research initiatives, advances in care
Wonder and disappointment. Two constants in the world of science, both were felt last week after a judge’s ruling closed off millions of federal dollars for human embryonic stem-cell research and threatened the future of this field of scientific study.
In the nearly year-and-a-half since President Barack Obama overturned an August 2001 order by President George W. Bush that limited federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research, scientists have gained growing momentum in this area of biomedical exploration and discovery, which has the potential to cure spinal chord injuries and dis- eases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (March 22, p. 17).
But on Aug. 23, that momentum came to a halt after U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth granted a preliminary injunction that prevents HHS’ guidelines for human stem-cell research—which allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research—from taking effect. The Obama administration is expected to appeal.
“NIH has been working with great energy and intelligence to put forward guidance that is scientifically and ethically sound,” Francis Collins, director of HHS’ National Institutes of Health, told reporters in a teleconference a day after the ruling was announced. “And as you know, that has resulted in the approval now of many lines for federal funding—a total of 75 now—most of them new, some from the Bush era,” he added. “They’ve all been reviewed rigorously and found to be eligible scientifically and ethically, but this decision potentially places all of this in jeopardy.”
Robert Kass, vice dean for research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, said he was disappointed by the decision. He also said most of the work at Columbia—and other medical schools—is funded through the NIH.
“The review process has been stopped and put in limbo,” Kass said. “What that means for researchers is it’s like a freeze frame. You have to stop, and it’s very disruptive.”
The process to receive funding from the NIH is a long and arduous one that includes various stages of review, both for a grant proposal to be accepted and funded, and again annually while the work of the grant is conducted. As a result of the preliminary injunction, the NIH’s Collins explained, 50 grants that were pending peer review have now been pulled and will not be considered because they involve human embryonic stem-cell research. Also, an estimated $15 million to $20 million worth of proposals that have passed the first stage of peer review and were scored with high priority for NIH council consideration in the next month have been stopped. Separately, there are 22 grants for projects totaling $53 million that will be up for annual review.
“The injunction would place a freeze on the renewal of those awards, which were due to be done by the end of September, and therefore would stop research in its tracks,” Collins said, adding later that about $131 million worth of grants already awarded this year is unaffected — “until, of course, they have to come back and ask for their next year’s allocation.”
A threatened future
Richard Hynes, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called the ruling “misguided.” Hynes also is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and served as a co-chair for the National Academy of Science committee that created guidelines for embryonic stem-cell research in 2005. He said the decision hinged on funding and will compromise the future of the biomedical research community.
“It will stop bright young people from going
A researcher works to concentrate bone marrow into a stem-cell-rich concentrate. A judge’s ruling could block millions of dollars in federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research.