Stem cell research in the United States of America: political history

Stem cell research, or rather research on embryos, has always been linked to the anti-abortion debate in the United States. In 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion, by saying that the abortion was private, and a decision made by the woman and her doctor. This legalization led to the US government banning all federal funding for research on embryos, fetuses, embryonic- and fetal tissue. The law change made it possible for private laboratories to do research, and therefore most infertility research and treatment have been driven to the private sector. This also includes in vitro fertilization.

In 1974 the Congress applied a temporary moratorium on federal funding, which meant that the decision could be postponed. During the eighties the possibility of using transplants of fetal neural cells into patients with Parkinson’s disease was considered, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received a request for funds. This later led to the Congress’s attempt to override the moratorium in 1990, which was vetoed by President George Bush.

One of the first acts President Clinton performed in office was to lift the ban of federal funding in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). However, to avoid Congress opposition, no projects were funded.  President Clinton were advised by the NIH Embryo Research Panel, in November 1994, to permit federal funding for research on leftover IVF embryos as well as embryos specially made for a research purpose. Clinton decided to permit funding of leftover embryos, but was stopped in 1995 by the Congress’s Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The Amendment banned federal funding of research on embryos, but it was not specified if this applied to cells that already have been derived.

The next step in permitting funding was done by George W. Bush. In August 2001 he permitted funds for research on stem cell lines already existing.  The number of cell lines eligible for federal funding ended up at 21. Cells still had to come from embryos left over after IVF. Religious leaders expressed their dissatisfaction, while scientists discussed the adequacy of the existing cell lines. Many existing cell lines have been grown in mouse media, and may therefore not be safe for human trials. Since George W. Bush’s speech several new cell lines have emerged, and the number of new cell lines varies from 400 to 1000. Many of these new cell lines have been made from embryos with genetic predispositions to specific diseases or have not been grown in animal media. This could therefore make them more interesting for research and preclinical studies.

President Barack Obama signed EO on stem cell research, March 9, 2009.

In March 2009 President Barack Obama signed an executive order entitled “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells”. The purpose of this order was to remove limitations and to expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research. This was done to enhance the contribution of America’s scientists to important new discoveries and new therapies for the benefit of humans.

As of March 14 2011, federal funds for embryonic stem cell research are still withheld. This is due to a court order, filed by Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, which argues that embryonic stem cell research is research executed on cells from an embryo once destroyed, hence violating the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

The court order is an outcome of a lawsuit from August 2009 against the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the National Institute of Health (NIH). The base of the lawsuit is that the new policy violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment from 1995, which prohibits destruction of human embryos. The lawsuit was dismissed in October, since the plaintiffs had no legal standing in the case. The lawsuit was however appealed by two scientists, one of them a researcher in adult stem cells, and in June the case was granted standing. This was done on the grounds that human embryonic stem cell research competed with adult stem cell research in funding.

In 2009 the NIH agency granted a total US$143 million in funding for human embryonic stem cell research. In 2010 US$137 million and US$126 million estimated for 2011. Federal funding was however stopped on August 23 2010, due to the mentioned court order. The NIH has however stated that funds already received are allowed to be used.

References:

Wadman, M. (2010). NIH may allow stem cell lines from younger embryos. Retrieved March 14 2011, from http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100222/full/news.2010.85.html

Ledford, H. (2011). Hidden toll of embryo ethics war. Retrieved March 14 2011, from http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110314/full/471279a.html

Katsnelson, A. (2010). US court suspends research on human embryonic stem cells. Retrieved March 14 2011, from http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100824/full/news.2010.428.html

Hayden, EC. (2009). Obama overturns stem cell ban. Retrieved March 14 2011, from http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090309/full/458130a.html

Federal Policy/The National Institutes of Health resource for stem cell research. (2010). Retrieved, February, 2011, from http://stemcells.nih.gov/policy/

Wertz, DC. (2002) Embryo and stem cell research in the United States: history and politics. Gene Therapy 9, pp. 674-678.

Federal Register. (2009). Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells (EO 13505). The White House: Presidential Documents.

Photo:

Park, A. (2009) Researchers Cheer Obama’s Vote for Stem-Cell Science. TIME. Retrieved, February, 2011, from http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1883861,00.html

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About Tom Erik

Student of Bionanotechnology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Loves reading, cooking and music.
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