As published as an opinion in The Hartford Courant, September 12, 2010.
Stem Cell Work Has Home Here
Tussle Over Federal Funds Hurts Research, But State's Backing Crucial Foundation
By Marc Lalande
Scientific grants worth about $70 million to stem cell researchers in Connecticut and other states were blocked by a recent federal court ruling barring such funding. This is a heavy blow to the state's research community and should be reversed on appeal. It also shows how important Connecticut's forward-thinking commitment to funding stem cell research is and how vital it is to continue that support.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia shocked the U.S. scientific community in August by issuing an injunction barring federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, which he ruled illegal.. Judge Lamberth found that the Obama administration's human embryonic stem cell research guideline was illegal because it violated a ban on federal funding of research involving human embryos. Thursday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Lamberth's injunction, allowing the resumption of federal funding for stem cell research pending the appeal of Lamberth's initial decision.
After Lamberth's first ruling, the National Institutes of Health, the main federal agency that provides funding for biomedical research, imposed a comprehensive freeze on all federally funded research involving human embryonic stem cell research. After Thursday's ruling, NIH will resume such funding.
Although Lamberth's ruling did not affect research projects already funded by the NIH, it jeopardized research for which funding is pending as well as applications that are under peer review. About 200 research projects nationwide were affected.
In Connecticut before the stay was issued, the NIH pulled six research grant applications worth about $4 million from researchers at Yale University and the University of Connecticut. This was devastating to the researchers because preparing a NIH grant application is a major project, requiring innovative thinking and a track record of expertise.
These are among the state's most cutting-edge research projects, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge in an area that holds great promise to cure disease and repair damaged limbs. In forcing the NIH, the world's largest biomedical research organization, to halt its funding for embryonic stem cell research, Lamberth's decision, if upheld, may force some of our more gifted scientists to consider abandoning their work with stem cells.
Or, as in previous eras of the stem cell debate, they may move to countries that enthusiastically fund this research. The danger is that the U.S. will fall behind other countries in research and therapies for some of our most serious diseases.
Yet, although the effect of a federal ban in Connecticut is not negligible, we are one of just three states that retain a viable research program using human embryonic stem cells, despite the legal challenges that seek to thwart our progress. Our competitive advantage is a direct result of Connecticut's stem cell program. The state's visionary citizens and legislators built an internationally recognized human embryonic stem cell research center from scratch by attracting experts from around the world to train our students, scientists and physicians.
The best outcome for Connecticut's citizens is an overturning of Lamberth's ban on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research so that NIH-funded research projects are free to develop stem cell therapies.
Now and in the future, the state's stem cell program is critically important. Researchers funded by Connecticut can continue their studies on how human embryonic stem cells can replace the cells that die in the brains of individuals with Parkinson's disease. Research can also move forward to generate bone and cartilage for the repair of injuries such as those sustained by our troops.
These advances are published in scientific and medical journals and are being presented by Connecticut scientists at international meetings. The economic benefits of the program are being felt just three years after its beginning, and several stem cell patents have been filed by Connecticut researchers.
Connecticut can maintain a competitive edge in human embryonic stem cell research by keeping its 10-year, $100 million commitment and by lobbying for continued federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. This relies on continued leadership from our elected officials.
Marc Lalande is the senior associate dean for research planning and coordination at the University of Connecticut Health Center, director of UConn's Stem Cell Institute, and professor and chairman of the medical school's Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology.