The U.S. District Court's freeze on federally funded embryonic stem cell research has sparked a firestorm of controversy as scientists in the field cope with the devastating blow this ruling deals to their work.
"If the ruling cannot be lifted soon, this will do irreparable harm to the field," says Sam Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan.
Judge Royce Lamberth ruled this Monday in favor of a case brought by Christian medical groups and adult stem cell researchers, approving a temporary injunction of federally funded research involving embryonic stem cells on the grounds that it violates the 1995 Dickey Wicker amendment.
The amendment prohibits federal funded research in which a human embryo is "destroyed, discarded or knowingly subject of risk of injury or death."
Though the case was brought against the expanded use of embryonic stem cells sanctioned by a 2009 executive order put in place by the Obama administration, experts argue that the injunction is so broad that it could be interpreted to cover even those research projects that would have been permitted under the Bush administration.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Health Institutes, told reporters Tuesday in a telephone briefing that he was "shocked" by the ruling and that "this decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of hte most promising areas of biomeidcal reserach. Iit comes just at the time when we were really gaining momentum."
Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency that was one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, says the suit was not intended to put a stop to all government funded embryonic stem cell studies, only to halt the federal endorsement of research that encourages future and continued destruction of human embryos for scientific purposes.
"The Obama administration tried to say that if private funding was used to create and destroy embryos, federal funding could be used for the research, but it's all part of the same process," he says.
Those in the field, however, fear that a broad interpretation of the ruling could do away with federal funding of any and all embryonic stem research and are counting on a quick appeal.
While awaiting the Justice Department's interpretation of the ruling, scientists and administrators nationwide are scrambling to figure out on which side of this injunction they fall.
In its broadest interpretation, this ruling could close all National Institute of Health labs dealing with embryonic stem cells. At its most limited, it could still put a halt to a significant amount of ongoing research, costing time, resources, and precious government funding.
Lamberth wrote in his ruling that his action returned federal policy to the "status quo," but stem cell experts couldn't disagree more.
"The judge made a serious error by finding that his ruling would not harm embryonic stem cell researchers. Given that this ruling would have blocked even the more restrictive Bush administration policy, it does greater harm to the human embryonic stem cell researchers than any policy ever enacted. This is the most extreme interpretation of federal law that we have seen yet," says Morrison.