Senators and Scientists Urge Congress to Act on Funding for Stem Cell Research

Sep 22, 2010

By Kristen Friend, staff U.S. Supreme Court and Congress writer – September 22, 2010

Pluripotent stems cells source from developing embryos

Pluripotent stems cells source from developing embryos. Diagram by Mike Jones.

Scientists and politicians weighed in on the topic of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research last Thursday before a Senate subcommittee hearing. The hearing was convened by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies – which is responsible for providing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The hearing came in the wake of the most recent move by Congress to put an end to the renewed legal battle surrounding federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. On Sept. 13, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) introduced the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2010 [1], a sister bill to the Stem Cell Advancement Act of 2009, which was introduced into the House by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO). [2]

Specter, who is a two-time cancer survivor, said upon introduction of the act, “This is the time to seize the scientific opportunities that lie before us and to ensure that all avenues of research toward cures – including stem-cell research – remain open for investigation.” [3]

Human embryonic stem cell research is considered promising for the treatment of a variety of ailments, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and heart disease. Embryonic stem cells do not yet have an identity, they can become any type of cell, and scientists hope to be able to program them to become any number of new tissues.

In March of 2009, President Obama signed an executive order that repealed Bush-era limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, stating that, “medical miracles do not happen simply by accident.” [4] The order called for the establishment of new guidelines by the NIH to allow for expanded federal funding for hESC research within the restrictions of current federal law. Under the new guidelines, researchers gained access to the use of federal tax dollars for hESC research beyond the few stem cell lines that had been allowed under the former Bush policy.

In 2010, the NIH has provided $131 million to researchers to continue work under the new guidelines. [5]
On Aug. 23, U.S. District Court judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction barring any federal funding for embryonic stem cell research under the new guidelines, stating they violate an existing law that prohibits funding for research that involves the destruction of embryos.

The law in question is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, an appropriations bill rider originally attached to a 1995 bill and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The amendment has been attached consistently to appropriations bills every year since 1996 and remains federal law today. The language of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibits the creation of new embryos for research and federal funding for any “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” [6]

The Obama administration appealed Judge Lamberth’s decision, claiming that the injunction would prevent scientists from receiving paychecks and cause cell cultures to languish and die in Petri dishes. [5] The administration also stated that the ruling was overbroad and could put all federal funding for hESC research in jeopardy, even funding previously allowed under President Bush. According to the administration, current funding guidelines only provide money for research on cell lines created from donated embryos that were destroyed by private funding. The government will not fund work that results in the destruction of an embryo. [7]

On Sept. 9, a U.S. Court of Appeals placed a temporary hold on the injunction in order to allow time for the court to review the administration’s appeal. The court directed both sides to file briefs by Sept. 20. Researchers hurried to continue work that had been prohibited under the initial injunction.

It is this uncertainty that Congress hopes to address with the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act. The bill has already passed both branches of Congress twice, in 2005 and 2007, and was twice vetoed by President Bush. The most recent incarnation of the bill, introduced by Senator Specter, states that Congress should permit funding for embryonic stem cell research “notwithstanding any other provision of law, including [the Dickey-Wicker amendment].” [8] The bill permits couples that have participated in fertility treatments to donate any embryos that would be otherwise marked for destruction, affirming that human embryonic stem cells could be used only with the permission of the donors and only if they are derived from in vitro fertilization. Scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands of excess frozen blastocysts are being stored within in vitro fertilization clinics across the country, many of which will simply be destroyed and discarded. [9]

During the hearing, Senator Harkin stressed the need for Congressional action on stem cell research, especially given the unpredictability involved in relying on the courts for guidance. “At last, we thought, our brightest young minds could enter this field without worrying that they’d go to the lab one day and find the doors ordered shut by someone in Washington, D.C,” he said. “If we don’t win in the courts, we’ll take it up in Congress.” [10]

Senator Specter echoed the need for Congress to again pass the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act, saying, “The uncertainty created by the ruling slows the progress of science,” since young scientists are often hesitant to go into an area of research that may experience cuts in funding. [3]

Scientists also appealed to the committee for action to preserve funding for hESC research. Sean Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan, argued that both embryonic and adult stem cell research should be funded in order to allow the most meritorious science to prevail. Morrison claimed that lobbyists, not scientists, have framed the debate as one of “adult” vs. “embryonic” stem cell proponents. Instead, he said, scientists are successful because the best ideas and research, no matter what they are, rise to the top, stating, “I would urge you to clarify the Dickey Wicker amendment so that there can be no question regarding Congress’s intent to fund the most meritorious science.” [7]

George Daley, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Stem Cell Transplantation Program, disputed the claim that research on other types of cells, such as adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (iSPCs), could effectively supplant research on embryonic stem cells. Daley heads a team of researchers comparing iSPCs to human embryonic stem cells and described the harm that would come to his lab should the ban on funding be put back in place. [11]. The work was frozen in September, and has since resumed, but Daley worries about a future shutdown. Describing the importance of exploring all types of stem cell research, Delay said, “Embryonic stem cells are not contestants on ‘Survivor’ that should be voted off the island.” [12]

Other projects that are threatened by a funding ban include one led by University of Pittsburgh professor of surgery Dr. Ira J. Fox, who has successfully transplanted new liver cells into animals using embryonic stem cells. Another, led by Dr. Xuejun Parsons of the University of California Riverside, is attempting to replace nerve cells damaged by Parkinson’s disease. [5]

The director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, also testified before the subcommittee panel. Collins stated that while the NIH currently spends more on adult stem cell research, continuing work on embryonic stem cell research is critical. Collins, who is a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian and author of the book, “The Language of God,” was asked by Senator Harkin how he reconciles his faith with his support for embryonic stem cell research. Collins replied, “These embryonic stem cells exist and will continue to exist so long as in vitro fertilization goes forward. Putting the reality test here, I believe most people who look carefully at the issues, whether from a faith or a humanistic perspective, come up with the conclusion that what is potential here justifies what we are talking about in terms of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.” [9]

The U.S. Court of Appeals has scheduled 30-minute oral arguments for Sept. 24. The result of the appeal could affect how quickly Congress acts on the issue.


1. Bill Text, Library of Congress,

2. Bill Text, Library of Congress,

3. The Hill,

4. CBS news,

5. The New York Times,


7. The Washington Post,



10. The Washington Post,

11. Science,

12. Video of Testimony,

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