WASHINGTON—The government will quickly appeal a court ruling that undercut federally funded embryonic stem cell research, the Obama administration declared Tuesday, but dozens of experiments aimed at fighting spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and other ailments probably will stop in the meantime.
The White House and scientists said Monday's court ruling was broader than first thought because it would prohibit even the more restricted stem cell research allowed for the past decade under President George W. Bush's rules.
The Justice Department said an appeal is expected this week of the federal judge's preliminary injunction that disrupted an entire field of science.
That initial ruling won't stop all the work that scientists call critical to finding new therapies for devastating diseases. The National Institutes of Health told anxious researchers late Tuesday that if they've already received money this year -- $131 million in total -- they can keep doing their stem cell experiments.
But 22 projects that were due to get yearly checks in September, $54 million worth, "will be stopped in their tracks," said NIH Director Francis Collins -- meaning a waste of the millions those scientists already have spent unless they can find private dollars to keep the stem cells alive. Dozens more proposals won't get a hearing pending the court case's conclusion.
"This decision has just poured sand into the engine of discovery," Collins said.
However, the ruling drew praise from the Alliance Defense Fund, a group of Christian attorneys who helped with the lawsuit filed by two researchers against the administration rules.
"The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments -- prohibited by federal law -- that destroy human life. The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos," said Steven H. Aden, the group's senior legal counsel.
President Barack Obama, who last year ordered an expansion of stem cell research, "put forward stringent ethical guidelines, and he thinks that his policy's the right one," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters Tuesday.
Asked if it might take new legislation from Congress to counter the ruling from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, Burton said the administration was exploring all avenues "to make sure that we can continue to do this critical lifesaving research."
How quickly any appeal could go through may determine how much is permanently lost.
"These cells are notoriously finicky, and you have to take care of them every day. You can't just lock up a lab and walk away for two weeks and come back and everything's fine," said Dr. Jonathan Moreno, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, where scientists were scrambling to tell which projects had to halt and which didn't.
If it takes "months to settle the legal wrangling, then we will just end our work," said Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology, whose lab is studying embryonic stem cells in hopes of reversing a serious intestinal birth defect.
Already, one leading stem cell researcher had shifted gears: At Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard researcher Dr. George Daley told his team to assume they couldn't use any of millions of dollars in government grant money to nurture the embryonic stem cells growing in his lab but must keep those cells alive by using equipment bought with private funds.
Lamberth on Monday temporarily blocked government funding of embryonic stem cell research, ruling that the pending lawsuit against the Obama policy was likely to succeed in its argument that such research violates the intent of a law prohibiting use of taxpayer dollars in work that destroys an embryo.
That law, called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, was written several years before scientists began growing batches, or lines, of stem cells culled from embryos, and Obama and two previous administrations -- Bush and Clinton -- had made a distinction between it and stem cell research.
Here's how: Culling embryonic stem cells -- master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body -- does kill a days-old embryo, so doing that must be funded with private money. But once the cells are culled, they can reproduce in lab dishes indefinitely. Hence government policies that said using taxpayer dollars to work with the already-created batches of cells were OK, and Congress not only never overturned those policies, it twice passed legislation specifically calling for tax-funded stem cell research, legislation that Bush vetoed.
Some Democrats said Tuesday they would try the legislation again, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, pledged a hearing on the court ruling as soon as Congress returns next month.
Bush had allowed taxpayer-funded research on 21 stem cell lines. Obama expanded -- up to 75 so far -- the number that could be used but with additional caveats: that the original embryo was left over from fertility treatment and the woman or couple who donated it did so voluntarily and was told of other options, such as donating the embryo to another infertile woman.
The lawsuit was filed by two scientists who argued that Obama's expansion jeopardized their ability to win government funding for research using adult stem cells -- ones that have already matured to create specific types of tissues -- because it would mean extra competition.
But learning how embryonic stem cells can be so flexible is crucial to scientists' ultimate objective, said Dr. Elaine Fuchs of Rockefeller University, who works with adult stem cells: Taking ordinary skin cells and slipping genes inside to make them embryo-like so they can grow other tissues.
"The progress of adult stem cell research, in my view, has been really set backward" by the ruling, too, she said.
And other researchers who work with all types said the competition argument sets a dangerous precedent. They said the NIH has spent triple the amount on adult stem cells as embryonic -- and that science in this country has always been funded according to its merit.
"It has a very frightening set of implications," said Harvard's Daley. "Are we going to have animal rights activists suing the NIH to stop all animal research because their own efforts to find alternatives to animal research is threatened by funding of mouse studies?"