ST. LOUIS — Last week, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth dismissed a two-year-old lawsuit challenging the federal stem cell policy established by President Barack Obama in March 2009.
The dismissal was somewhat anti-climactic, given that an appeals court already had reversed a key early ruling by Judge Lamberth of the District of Columbia. That reversal left very little wiggle room in determining the merits of the suit itself.
But the dismissal is welcome, nonetheless. It lifts a legal cloud that has hung for two years over federally funded research with human embryonic stem cells.
This restores an important measure of certainty to the work of scientists who are following the stem cell research guidelines that the National Institutes of Health issued in July 2009.
The lawsuit had claimed that the president's executive order, which expanded the permissible range of research with human embryonic stem cells, violated a law banning the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.
The human embryonic stem cells used in research are derived from blastocysts, a microscopic clump of cells that develops five days after an egg and sperm unite to form an embryo, generally through in vitro fertilization procedures.
Some people consider this destruction of blastocysts to be abortion and oppose the process on moral or religious grounds.
Judge Lamberth ruled that Mr. Obama's order, which overrode a policy established by President George W. Bush, is consistent with federal law.
The order maintains the ban on using federal funds to destroy embryos. But it allows federal funds to pay for research with human embryonic stem cells that were produced by private entities without government money. Mr. Bush's policy did not.
The medical and biological investigation of stem cells, both human embryonic stem and so-called "adult" varieties, is regarded as a particularly promising branch of scientific research. Stem cells are essential players in the creation, development and repair of organs and tissues.
Studies are exploring the possible use of stem cells in treating some of the most daunting diseases afflicting humanity, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.
Other possible applications might include treatments for paralyzing spinal cord injuries and tests of the effectiveness of genetically targeted drug therapies.
It was discovered in 1998 that human embryonic stem cells could be grown in a laboratory. The cells were also found to possess an astonishing ability to grow into any kind of cell in the body. Scientists began working with adult stem cells, which are found in all kinds of human tissues, in the 1950s.
Initially, adult stem cells appeared to be able to grow into only the kind of cell from which they originated: skin, heart, nerve, and so on. Adult stem cells have been used widely in bone marrow transplants to treat serious blood disorders.
In recent years, domestic and international research has made remarkable progress in reprogramming adult stem cells to behave with the developmental versatility of human embryonic stem cells.
Some opponents of human embryonic stem cell research have argued that these advances make human embryonic stem cell research unnecessary.
We humans aren't smart enough to predict which kind of stem cell will prove effective in treating these fearsome diseases and disabilities. It's possible that neither of them will.
The only way to find out is for dedicated scientists to conduct careful experiments, abiding by strict guidelines to ensure they are done ethically and responsibly. We encourage their research and await the results with hope.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.