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NIH cuts off stem cell funding after court order

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By Rob Stein
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday that it has suspended funding new human embryonic stem cell research and that all federally funded experiments already underway will be cut off when they come up for renewal if a new court order is not overturned.

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The announcement - which confirmed fears among proponents that the ruling would result in a comprehensive freeze in federal support for stem cell research - came in response to a court order Monday barring the government from funding the research because it involves the destruction of embryos.

"Frankly, I was stunned, as was virtually everyone else at the NIH yesterday, at the judicial decision," said NIH Director Francis Collins. "This decision has the potential to do serious harm to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research."

The Justice Department said the administration plans to appeal the ruling, but no further details were released.

In the meantime, 50 requests for new funding that were being assessed by the NIH had been "pulled out of the stack" and will not be considered further, Collins said. About a dozen other requests for $15 million to $20 million that had gone through the full review and were likely to be approved were frozen, he said. In addition, 22 grants totalling about $54 million due for renewal in September will be cut off, he said.

"The consequences of this decision are dramatic and far-reaching," Collins said.

Another 199 grants for about $131 million that had already been awarded will be able to continue, Collins said. But those grants, including 143 worth about $95 million that are up for renewal within the next year, will be forced to stop if the situation is not resolved by the time they come up for review, Collins said.

The agency also canceled a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to consider approving new colonies of stem cells for use in federally funded experiments, Collins said.

"This is the worst possible situation," said Elaine Fuchs, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. "This is going to be extremely damaging."

Collins said he was deeply disappointed, especially at a time when the NIH was expanding its funding of the field under less-restrictive guidelines put in place by the Obama administration.

"Human embryonic stem cell research done responsibly and ethically is one of the most exciting areas of research to come along in a long time," Collins said. "The momentum has really been building. This decision potentially places all of this in jeopardy."

Speaking at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where President Obama is vacationing with his family, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said the administration is exploring all possible avenues "to make sure that we can continue to do this critical lifesaving research," but he did not specify exactly how it will respond.


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