No 'Status Quo' for Scientists as Ruling Halts Stem Cell Studies

In his order halting federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), Judge Royce Lamberth wrote that his ruling “would not seriously harm ESC researchers because the injunction would simply preserve the status quo and would not interfere with their ability to obtain private funding for their research.” Researchers beg to differ.

Across the country, scientists are worried that if the impasse is not quickly resolved, they will have to lay off lab members and shut down entire projects—including many that involve hESCs only peripherally. Raising funds to replace frozen NIH grants—particularly in a down economy—is no easy prospect, says Margaret Goodell, a stem cell scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Goodell says she received her annual grant renewal notice late last week, so she is assuming for now that she can continue work. But had the notice been delayed by a few days, she says, she would have had to lay off 20 people in her lab.

Goodell says one colleague has had a $10 million grant application “tabled”—put in limbo pending disposition of Lamberth’s action—although only a small part of the work involved hESCs. For now, NIH is telling researchers that they cannot separate hESC work from the rest of a grant or substitute other cell types, such as mouse ES cells or induced pluripotent stem cells.    

For Amander Clark at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the situation is more acute. Her grant application has been tabled; in addition, her grant that was funded under the Bush Administration rules may be in jeopardy, although it was supposed to be renewed for a final year in January. “If this injunction is not overturned, then in January I will not be receiving anything,” she says. “As a new PI [principal investigator] just getting my lab off the ground, I am devastated. I am worried about my tenure, I am worried about my graduate students and I am worried about my postdocs.” The situation has hit young investigators particularly hard, she says. “We do not have the track record yet to easily or quickly secure funds from non-federal sources.”

Jerome Zack, an immunologist at UCLA who has been studying the role of epigenetics in stem cell differentiation, says one of his grants is up for renewal in 3 months. The grant was supposed to have 4 years of funding left, he says. “I had a meeting with my lab this morning and laid it on the table about when our grants are expiring,” he says. “I said, ‘Unless the situation changes, we are in trouble.’ One can see this coming down when you know a grant is going to expire. But when you think you have 4 years left, and it’s suddenly taken away, that’s a problem, because you can’t plan for that.”

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This item has been corrected to reflect the correct name of Margaret Goodell's institution.