“I’ve been working with embryonic stem cells for nine years and seen the waves come and go,” says Sean Palecek, a stem-cell researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Right now is the most restrictive that it’s ever been.” Palecek and others worry that this latest blow will discourage young scientists from entering the field. “It’s really disheartening,” he says. “It’s hard enough to come up with cutting-edge ideas and to get funding. The possibility of having funding pulled at any time sends the wrong message.”
In the aftermath of the ruling, the NIH said that work under existing grants can go on, though it has stopped reviews of new grants or existing grants up for renewal. (A different interpretation of the injunction by the U.S. Department of Justice could halt ongoing research as well.) According to the NIH, 22 grants, worth $54 million, were up for renewal during September. A dozen other grants, worth $15 to $20 million, had scored highly in the first round of reviews and were likely to be funded. Those have now also been put on hold, as have about 50 new grant applications involving embryonic stem cells.
Palecek is one of hundreds of scientists likely to feel the effects. His lab is developing ways to create heart tissue from embryonic stem cells, with the ultimate goal of understanding heart disease better and testing new treatments. He has one grant up for renewal, and a second new grant that was likely to be funded. Both will now be put on hold. If the injunction lasts long enough, he’ll likely lose personnel.
Mortimer Poncz, a physician and scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who is developing new treatments for blood disorders, had received high scores for a grant to fund a stem-cell facility at his institution. The facility, which would provide expertise for scientists new to the field, has also been put on hold. That scenario may play out at universities across the country. Many universities had begun building or expanding stem-cell research programs in the last year.
Part of the increased interest in stem cells in recent years comes from the development of so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are derived from adult tissue but mimic embryonic stem cells’ ability to differentiate into any type of tissue. However, scientists say this new cell type does not eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells. On the contrary, it’s not yet clear whether iPS cells possess all the properties of embryonic stem cells. And because so much more is known about the embryonic stem cells, scientists frequently use them in iPS cell experiments as a comparison.
Lawrence Goldstein, a scientist at the University of California, San Diego, is using embryonic stem cells to test new treatments for a fatal and untreatable childhood disorder. “The families really want us to make progress as rapidly as possible,” says Goldstein. “Now we may have to generate a new set of technology. What do I tell the parents of these kids?”
No one knows how long the situation will last. The Obama administration says it will appeal the ruling, and the Justice Department says it will ask for the injunction to be lifted, pending appeal.