Controversy surrounding research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) has limitless potential to self-renew, apparently. In a decision handed down today, Judge Lamberth gave a rather unusual interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which was first passed in 1996 and appended to every budget thereafter. It states that "research in which … embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subject to risk of injury or death" cannot receive federal funds. Basically, the judge is saying that if I am a lab that receives federal funds, no matter where the hESCs came from, I cannot do research on them. Everyone on the planet thought that the rules were something like, you cannot use federal money to establish hESC lines but once they exist then it is okay to use them -- indeed, this is what Bush thought the rules were, as the dozen or so lines that already existed at the time he imposed his moratorium were fine for use in federally-funded research. Lamberth's decision is particularly odd because by his definition, all the work I've done is really part of the same project that David Baltimore worked on in the 80s, Har Gobind Khorana worked on in the 60s, Thomas Morgan worked on in the (19)00s, and Darwin worked on in the 1860s. In other words, all projects are continuous. Needless to say, I disagree.
Also of note is why this ended up in front of a judge in the first place, and for that we have to thank a lawsuit brought by James Sherley. I know this man, or at least, have sat in the same room as him many times. Around 10 years ago, I attended a weekly super-group meeting, meaning my lab and a dozen or so other labs would get together every Wednesday and two people would present their work. It was good experience for talking in front of a large group, and since it was a "private" meeting, you could present less-than-finished work and get excellent feedback on it without fear of being scooped. James Sherley came to these meetings, and sat there. I remember this not because people from his lab ever presented work -- as far as I could tell, his lab consisted of him -- but rather because you notice a rather corpulent black man sitting there week after week but not ever speaking. You eventually wonder, who is that guy?
The whole community learned who that guy was when, in 2007, he decided to stage a hunger strike because he didn't get tenure. Needless to say, he lost this battle, didn't get tenure, and, presumably, eventually ate something. Anyway, it now appears that he sued the NIH over its funding of embryonic stem cells not so much from a moral position but rather because he works on adult stem cells, which would clearly take a back seat if people could use embryonic stem cells. Of course, one question for him (and everyone else who thinks that adult stem cells are a fine thing to work on, but embryonic stem cells are not): if adult stem cells can really do everything that embryonic stem cells can do, then how are they different from embryonic stem cells? In other words, aren't you really just making ES cells -- real human life, according to you -- in a lab? Or are you bullshitting us about the potential of adult stem cells?
In sum, a crazy man who is pissed off at the scientific establishment found a lawyer who needed some work who then worked his way up through the courts until he found a judge (Reagan appointee, who also ruled a few years back that Iran owes the families of 241 marines killed in a 1983 bombing in Beirut a total of $2.65 billion dollars... I didn't realize that a federal judge could make other countries pay up like that....) who was nuts enough to agree with him. I assume that the Obama Justice department will bump this further up the judicial chain, the ruling will be reversed, and we'll be done with it. For now...