NEW YORK—With a Republican majority getting set to move into the House of Representatives in January—and fewer Democrats returning to the Senate—the upcoming lame-duck congressional session might be a key window for securing the future of stem cell research in the U.S.
After a surprise August injunction—and the subsequent, still-in-effect stay—on federally funded stem cell research, the issue remains in both legal and legislative limbo. And with so many other pressing national issues, such as the economy and international security, scientists hoping for more stability in the government's ability to fund human embryonic stem cell research worry that if a legislative conclusion isn't reached before the end of the year, the political climate in 2011 will be less amenable to the idea.
"It's not going to make it easy," Susan Solomon, co-founder and CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, said of Tuesday's election results in a meeting at foundation's labs in uptown New York City.
But stem cell research doesn't have to be a partisan issue, Solomon pointed out, noting that their foundation has plenty of Republicans among its financial supporters. Their support often comes from the personal experience, she said, of knowing someone who has a disease that stem cell research might someday help to cure—or at least treat.
Many in the field have their hopes set on Rep. Mike Castle (R–Del.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (D–Pa.), who are both facing the ends of their long congressional careers and might be looking for a final victory on which to hang their names.
Although NYSCF is privately funded and thus immune to government funding fluctuations, Solomon pointed out that U.S. federal government is a "huge motor of biomedical research in the world." And the court injunction, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Francis Collins has said, "poured sand into that engine of discovery." The NIH has allocated $1.1 billion of its 2011 budget for stem cell research (which includes money for all forms of stem cell research, including human embryonic, induced pluripotent and adult stem cell projects).
Any of that money earmarked for embryonic stem cell research, however, could be cut off if either the courts or Congress decide not to continue funding the work. "The outlook for stem cells is even less certain now than it was yesterday," Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology told Science Insider on Wednesday.
And even though federally funded research has been allowed to continue for now, the uncertainty itself can be harmful to the field, Solomon said. "You need stability and continuity" to support ongoing research—and as a signal to early career researchers ("the water's fine, come on in," Solomon said). For now, though, those in stem cell research "don't know where we stand, and that's just unacceptable," she noted.
Oral arguments in the injunction appeals case are scheduled for December 6.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto/VladimirCetinski