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Stem Cell Showdown

The Obama administration says it will appeal the court ruling which invalidated the president's new rules on stem cell research, the New York Times reports. The ruling puts millions of federal grant dollars into question, and is leaving many researchers wondering what will become of their work to find treatments for diseases ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer's. "Beyond human embryonic stem cell studies, research on vaccines, viruses and lung disease could also be affected, experts said, because cells commonly used in such research were derived from either aborted fetuses or destroyed embryos," the Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Gardiner Harris say. Researchers could find themselves in a quandary if the Justice Department's appeal doesn't pan out — scrambling to find work outside the US or private funding, or will have to delay the research in hopes of finding another approach. The Wall Street Journal's Gautam Naik reports that NIH has abandoned a planned review of 50 new grant applications and second-level reviews of about 12 applications worth $15 million to $20 million. There was also a review of another 22 grant applications worth $54 million planned for September, which will also be frozen. However, Naik says, Francis Collins has assured researchers who have already been granted some $130 million in grants that they can continue working until the money runs out.

But the consequences of the decision run even deeper, says Keith Robison at Omics! Omics! The two researchers who brought the suit — and who work with adult stem cell lines — say that the new rules for embryonic stem cell research mean they will have to compete for research funding to do their work. The danger now, Robison says, is that every time there is a change in federal funding, litigators could see an opportunity for themselves. "Wind down project X to fund project Y? LAWSUIT!" he says. "Either this will dissuade funding from the ebb and flow which is necessary, or a far worse than zero sum game ensues in which funding for science instead funds litigation." Jonathan Moreno at Science Progress points out that the two researchers' argument about their funding being in jeopardy is nonsense anyway, because there is no cap on stem cell research funding. "The NIH will give grants based on the quality of the proposed work, not on the materials to be used," he says. "In fact, adult stem cell research has received three times as much funding as embryonic. Over the past decade funding for adult stem cells has increased, not declined, and it has done so partly because of the greater understanding of stem cell biology gained from work with embryonic stem cells." Basically, Moreno adds, these scientists are using the courts to get rid of the competition.