Stem Cell Decision Fallout: What's Next, and Who Were the Plaintiffs?

By Andrew Moseman | August 25, 2010 5:42 pm

test tubes220Stem cell work will go on. But the shape of its long-term future is a mystery.

A court ruling yesterday that said the federal government can’t fund embryonic stem cell research even if no money goes to destroying embryos has thrown the field into confusion. Today, though, NIH head Francis Collins says that while the government can’t fund new projects (at least until the legal dispute is resolved), researchers in the middle of federally funded projects can continue.

The Justice Department said yesterday it will appeal the injunction issued Monday by a federal judge in Washington. Collins said that if the decision stands, it puts in jeopardy a fast-moving area of science that offers potential treatments for spinal cord injury, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as help in screening new drugs. “This decision has just poured sand into this engine of discovery,’’ he said [Boston Globe].

While the federal court decision goes through reviews and appeals, the Globe reports that researchers might turn their attention back to private funding. With federal policy in upheaval and its funding subject to political and legal wrangling, that might be the only reliable source of money.

Meanwhile, the litigants who brought the case have been drawing their share of attention in the aftermath of the decision. James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, the two researchers who were the plaintiffs, aren’t speaking to the media at the moment, so reporters have to been digging into their records. The two work on adult stem cells, and received standing to sue in court on the basis that funding for embryonic stem cell research would make it more competitive–therefore making it tougher for them to get government funding for their own work. But Sherley’s and Deisher’s histories suggest that politics had as much to do with the case.

In 2007, Sherley gained some attention with a hunger strike after MIT denied him tenure, a decision he asserted was racial discrimination.

Dr. Sherley, who is black, ended his hunger strike after losing 20 pounds and giving a series of teach-ins near the university’s administrative offices in which he likened the destruction of human embryos to racial discrimination. “When I say ‘embryoism,’ I mean discriminating against human embryos, just like there is discrimination against people of different culture and races,” he said [The New York Times].

Deisher, who works with adult stem cells, is a frequent political activist as well.

Deisher, founder of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, is a frequent speaker warning against the use of embryonic cells to produce vaccines and other medical products. The company name — AVM, as in “Ave Maria” — reflects the struggling firm’s efforts to provide products that don’t rely on embryonic or fetal cells for their production [Los Angeles Times].

Related Content:
80beats: Judge: Obama’s Expansion of Stem Cell Research Violates Federal Law
80beats: The Trouble With Lab-Created Stem Cells—and Why They Won’t Displace Embryonic Ones
80beats: FDA Green-Lights First Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells (Again)
80beats: Bring on the Research: NIH Approves New Embryonic Stem Cell Lines
80beats: Obama’s Guidelines for Stem Cell Research Dodge Controversial Bullets

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Ian

    The scientific facts speak for themselves – human life begins at conception. Therefore, the human embryo (the embryonic human) has a right to life.

    Also I would take issue with the LA Times’s use of the phrase “struggling firm” to describe AVM. Just how many therapies have adult stem cells succeeded in delivering compared with those based on the use of Human ESCR? I would say that AVM stand a very good chance of succeeding.

  • m

    stem cells are readily available without the need for embryo’s. i’m pretty sure it was Discover that ran that article about being able to convert ones own cells into stems.

  • Gil

    Pretty clever to get the most promising competition to your research hobbled while advancing religious views simultaneously…

  • Ian

    @3, yes, it is clever but this is isn’t just about religious views, there are philosophical and scientific facts that cannot be ignored.

    As Dr Mark Lowery, professor of moral theology at the University of Dallas puts it “One hallmark of the Catholic tradition is that it prizes such arguments that take place on the level of reason alone. The reason the Church can hold such methodology in high esteem lies in her famous principle, enunciated best by St. Thomas Aquinas, that grace does not cancel out nature, but presupposes and perfects it. Applied here, this means that the argument based in human nature as derived by reason alone is fully affirmed by the Church.”

  • Gil

    @4: They are post hoc philosophical rationalizations of religious positions. It’s silly to equate a zygote with a human being. It lacks any of the qualities that make a human being different from a culture of human epithelial cells.

  • Eliza Strickland

    @ m:

    Yes, DISCOVER has often covered advances in stem cell research. You may be referring to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) — those are specialized adult cells, like skin cells, that are reprogrammed to act like multipurpose stem cells. We’ve covered the advances in making these reprogrammed cells safer. But we’ve also covered findings that suggest that these iPS cells aren’t as strong and healthy as embryonic stem cells.

    Still more fascinating science: Researchers have recently found ways to transform one type of specialized adult cell into a different type, entirely skipping the iPS cell stage. For example, in one mouse study they changed skin cells into neurons.

    –Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Wil

    It is a bit unsettling and disgusting that, rather than discussing the merits of the judge’s reasons for making this decision, the only purpose of this article was to smear the plaintiffs personally.

    Just because the author does not like this decision, does not mean that it was factually or legally incorrect. But we’ll never know either way from this article, because the detailed facts of the case were never even brought up. Only sneering (and utterly irrelevant) personal attacks.

  • AlexB

    judging by these comments, this article must have been linked to in a religious blog…
    Sherley and Deisher are hindering scientific progress for their own religious purposes.
    And Ian, dont twist science to fit your point of view, human life does not begin at conception. a zygote is merely a mass of cells, not a human.
    youll find very few scientists to agree with you, despite your arrogant confidence

  • Eric

    …and the fact remains that the end result of this ruling is putting the brakes on promising research. We had hope. Hope that a cure for our daughter’s progressive blindness could be found through stem cell research. There is no cure for her illness, Usher Syndrome, the leading cause of deafness and blindness. Recent studies have found that embryonic stem cells can transform into damaged or missing retinal cells that could cure blindness. Now, the injunction by Judge Lamberth will halt federal funding for stem cell research. Now, millions of dollars earmarked for research to cure maladies such as Alzheimer’s , Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and my daughter’s blindness…is no longer available. NIH researchers say they are devastated. Imagine our frustration.

  • Jennifer Angela

    I feel true compassion for Eric and his family. I assume Ian is attempting to save potential (we don´t know if these cells would actually mature or not – given the chance) lives, but at what expense?! It´s a huge pity my Grandmother was not provided with stem cell research (which wasn´t available two years ago). It could have saved her life. I would like to know one thing only: Are these embryoes dead already? If yes, what exactly is the point of not letting them save people´s lives or rescue Eric´s child from increasing blindness? Even (and I don´t mean this in an offensive way) from a catholic point of view a dead embryo is dead and thus cannot be rescued from dying. Being a catholic myself I am not going to insult Ian, but I am not going to hinder progress either. I don´t consider it uncatholic to NOT be opposed to embryonic stem cell research. I am not against it. I also think it´s about time to enable female priests of access to the catholic church and that a female pope would be fun. And I am not the only one. I´ve read that in certain corners of this planet people were attempting to change the world of catholics into a new, more progressive place with female priests and potential female popes. Certainly, this would alter catholic people´s perspective on when life begins. Now I suppose it´s time for Ian to rage.


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