Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, appeared before a Senate subcommittee in Washington D.C. yesterday to testify in favor of continuing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

At the hearing, titled “The Promise of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies decided to continue federal funding for stem cell research until further legislative decisions can be made. The subcommittee ruled to temporarily revoke the injunction established in August by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, which blocked federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

Lamberth ruled that the Obama administration’s decision to expand federal funding in March 2009 was illegal under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which restricts the use of taxpayers’ dollars to fund research involving the destruction of human embryos.

In 2007 President Bush issued an executive order, which limited the number of stem cell lines available to researchers. In a statement last night, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D–Iowa) wrote that Obama’s repeal of the ban brought hope that stem cell researchers could expand their work without fear of legal ramifications.

“At last, we thought, our brightest young minds could enter this field without worrying that they’d go to the lab one day and find the doors ordered shut by someone in Washington D.C.,” Harkin wrote.

Harkin, chair of the subcommittee, wrote that Lamberth’s injunction came “out of the blue” and that decision “placed a cloud of uncertainty over this entire scientific field.”

At the hearing, Morrison cited the difficulty he faced obtaining NIH funding and approval to use embryonic stem cell lines to study Hirschsprung — a birth defect caused by damaged neural stem cells, according to a transcript of his testimony. Due to the fluctuations in legislation involving embryonic stem cell funding, Morrison said the approval process suffered repeated delays, and was finally granted, only to be stopped by Lamberth’s injunction.

“We owe more to the patients suffering from incurable diseases,” Morrison said in his testimony. “We owe it to them to support all forms of stem cell research so that no matter where the science leads and where cures come from, we can follow the most promising avenues of discovery.”

Opponents of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research stress there are alternative ways to research treatments like using adult stem cells, that do not involve the use of embryos. However, Morrison said in his testimony yesterday that the potential of human embryonic stem cells for treating disease cannot be ignored.

“The reality is that many types of stem cells are likely to yield scientific advances – and potentially new therapies – and it would be foolish to place all our bets on certain stem cells at such an early stage in the development of this field,” Morrison said.

In an e-mail interview last night after his presentation, Morrison wrote that he is worried Congress will not act soon enough to permanently overturn Lamberth’s ruling.

“Although Congress has twice previously voted to increase federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, I am concerned that new legislation could get delayed by election year politics,” Morrison wrote.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also testified yesterday in front of the committee. According to a transcript of the testimony, Collins told the committee that he is concerned that the uncertainty of the field may discourage young scientists from pursing a career in stem cell research and push current researchers to move to countries where research is more accepted.

Collins, a former University professor, said in his testimony that the NIH has invested more than $500 million in human embryonic stem cell research. Just last year, the NIH granted $6.8 million in federal stimulus funds to University researchers for stem cell-related projects.

In an NIH statement issued last week, officials said the consideration of grants, contracts and applications involving the use of human embryonic stem cells — all of which were frozen by the August injunction — will continue. The statement highlighted the importance of stem cell research for finding treatments for diseases.

“Human embryonic stem cell research holds the potential for generating profound new insights into disease, cell-based therapeutics, and novel methods of screening for new drugs,” officials said in the NIH statement.

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