End to stem cell research challenge doesn't calm funding fears for scientists

Even as they celebrate clearing a legal hurdle, worries of stem cell research grant money evaporating constantly weigh on scientists like Dr. Ted Dawson, whose projects at Johns Hopkins Hospital have helped inform treatment of neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

A three-year court battle by two researchers to stop stem cell research using human embryos ended Monday when the Supreme Court declined to review the case. Scientists like Dawson say that frees up grant opportunities and are relieved for now.

"It takes some of the uncertainty out," Dawson said. "It takes us back to a situation where we're hopefully only limited by our creativity, our talent in doing the science and the resources available."

The problem is that more limitations appear likely. Research advocates fear a handful of threats to funding for all types of stem cell research and scientific study in general: the so-called "fiscal cliff," more legal challenges, an eventual new administration in Washington and the possibility of a more competitive peer review process.

Altogether, the hazards have tempered researchers' enthusiasm over the high court's non-decision.

"It's good for research in general," said Dan Gincel, director of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund. "It doesn't stop any future presidents from having another executive order to go the other way. If the Supreme Court would have discussed that, it would have put an end to it one way or another."

Embryonic stem cell research has long faced hurdles from those who see it as morally wrong, akin to abortion. Generating a line of the cells requires destroying the embryo. President George W. Bush limited federally funded embryonic stem cell research to only projects using lines developed before August 2001.

President Barack Obama reversed the decision in April 2009, opening up new embryonic stem cell lines to federal funding. But a federal court in Washington, D.C., suspended the change in August 2010 when two scientists sued on behalf of "plaintiff embryos." The opponents lost on appeal. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case means the appeals court's ruling in support of the policy stands.

Proponents of the research argue that the cells can be key in the treatment of many diseases because they have the potential to develop into many different cell types in the body. The scientists who challenged the Obama policy, and others like them, argue that research should be limited to using stem cells derived from adult tissue, though some scientists question whether the adult cells have the same potential.

Uncertainty over how courts might have handled appeals of the lawsuit meant few options for stem cell research projects for the past decade. Scientists are reluctant to take on any project for which funding is or might become scarce, Gincel said.

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End to stem cell research challenge doesn't calm funding fears for scientists

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