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Stem cell exodus?

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The immediate cost to science is the interruption of momentum. In August, Judge Royce Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia unexpectedly granted a preliminary injunction on hESC funding on the grounds that it violated a 1996 budget rider called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The amendment prohibits the use of federal funds to destroy embryos. Scientists had gotten around that requirement by using private funds to pay to extract stem cells from the embryo, then using funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for all subsequent research. Judge Lamberth's injunction disallowed that practice.

"Federal grants are the lifeblood of our program," says George Daley, an hESC researcher with a joint appointment at Harvard and Children's Hospital Boston who, by Sept. 1, had to freeze some of the stem-cell cultures he had been working on and transfer others to a privately funded lab. "We can limp along using private funds, but – especially in this economy – those are hard to find."

Federal funding remains in jeopardy. While Tuesday's ruling keeps the funding flowing for now, the trial on the merits of the original case still lies ahead. A funding refreeze seems likely, as Lamberth granted the August injunction because, he wrote, there was a "strong likelihood" that he would eventually rule that the NIH was violating the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by funding hESC research.

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