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Victory for embryonic stem cell research funding

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is legally allowed to fund human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, a US Court of Appeals ruled on 24 August in a long-standing dispute which may now move to the Supreme Court.

A three-judge panel upheld the ruling of a lower court that found the NIH could continue to fund research on hESCs.

The case, first filed in 2009, revolves around the Dickey–Wicker amendment, which bars federal funding for research that destroys human embryos. The plaintiffs, adult stem cell researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, say that NIH-funded hESC research violates Dickey–Wicker because it uses cell lines derived by destroying day-old embryos.

Though the judges each cited different reasons, the court unanimously sided with the NIH’s interpretation—which is that while destructive cell-line derivation may not be funded with federal dollars, research with the cell lines thus produced can be.

“[This] ruling… is important news for patients”, said NIH director Francis Collins. “President Obama is committed to supporting responsible stem cell research and [the ruling is] another step in the right direction.”

NIH will continue to move forward, “conducting and funding research in this very promising area of science”, he added.

Ben Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said he was “quite pleased” with the verdict.

“We have always felt that NIH was well within its legal rights to fund such work”, he said, though Dickey–Wicker stifled research that could lead to innovative treatments and cures.

“We need Congress to step up and pass legislation that wipes away Dickey–Wicker by clarifying the guidelines for conducting research on embryonic stem cells,” he said.

The case may go further, with the US Supreme Court the final arbiter. The plaintiffs are said to be considering an appeal—which, given that the judges differed on why they supported the NIH’s approach, may stand a chance of being heard.