More MS news articles for June 2001

Christopher Reeve and Researchers Sue Feds

Halt to stem cell research funding leads Reeve and seven researchers to sue the government. Lawsuit claims the Bush administration illegally stopped the funding process for the contoversial research.

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June 2001
By Argelio Dumenigo

Christopher Reeve has joined a group of researchers from the United States and Australia who are suing the federal government for what they say is the illegal withholding of funding for stem cell research.

The lawsuit, filed in early May, charges that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the Bush administration are causing "irreparable harm" by stalling the funding process for stem cell research. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and NIH acting Director Ruth Kirschstein are also named in the lawsuit.

Spokesmen for the NIH and the HHS said the agencies did not comment on pending litigation.

The Bush administration recently ordered a review of the federal government's policy regarding the funding of research using human stem cells, which the plaintiffs and other proponents say can play a huge role as a source for transplantation therapies, the study of birth anomalies and cancer, and as a tool in drug discovery.

"It would be tragic to squander this opportunity to pursue work that can potentially help millions of Americans in need," said the leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in a letter to President Bush earlier this year. Founded in 1848, AAAS is the world's largest federation of scientists, with more than 138,000 individual members and 273 affiliated societies.

Due to the ongoing policy review, the HHS halted on the funding process for stem cell research in April and canceled the first meeting in which applications were to be considered.

Bill Hall, a spokesman for HHS, said that the review is continuing and no date has been set for its completion. "It made the best sense to hold off," said Hall, referring to the government's decision to stop the funding process until the review was completed.

This interruption to the funding procedure, however, is what led to the lawsuit, explained Jeffrey Martin, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.

"We sued after they stopped the process," stressed Martin, who is based in Washington, D.C. "They could be evaluating these applications and getting prepared to fund this research. It's not a turnkey process, it takes a long time."

Reeve said he joined the lawsuit "because of the hope that all stem cell research offers to improve the lives of millions of Americans suffering today from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other afflictions."

"I hope that my participation will give a voice to those people who are suffering the devastating physical, emotional and financial impact of these conditions. Any further delay is truly not ethical," added Reeve, who founded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation after becoming a quadriplegic in 1995 when he was thrown from his horse.

The other plaintiffs include Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, who was one of the first researchers to deal with stem cells; Dr. Douglas Melton of Harvard University; and Dr. Alan Osborne Trounson of Monash University in Australia. James Cordy, of Pittsburgh, who has Parkinson's disease, and James Tyree, of Chicago, who has diabetes, are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Cordy is the president and founder of the local Pittsburgh chapter of the National Parkinson's Foundation (NPF) and a member of the board of directors of NPF headquartered in Miami. He is also a founding member of The Parkinson's Alliance, the only national volunteer group composed of people with Parkinson's disease or those directly affected by it.

Tyree is heavily involved in the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in Chicago.

Research, Politics and Ethics

The stem cells the lawsuit addresses are derived from human embryos and are called human pluripotent stem cells. Anti-abortion groups and some ethicists oppose fetal and embryonic stem cell research because they think it could encourage the generation of embryos purely for science.

The NIH guidelines for research using human stem cells were issued under the Clinton administration.

The guidelines permit funding of embryonic stem cell research, provided the funds were not used to kill the embryo. Private researchers would extract the stem cells from fertility clinic embryos and then pass along the cells to federally funded researchers.

In March, a California adoption agency, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, also sued Thompson, Kirschstein and their agencies to oppose the guidelines and the research funding. In that lawsuit, the plaintiffs stated, "the process of 'harvesting' stem cells from human embryos necessarily entails the destruction of human embryos. Moreover, human embryonic stem cell research subjects human embryonic stem cells to substantial risk of harm."

That lawsuit was stayed pending the completion of the HHS review, which was viewed as a victory for opponents of the research, Martin said. The U.S. District Court judge who heard the case ordered that "during the review period, defendants will not evaluate the scientific merits of any applications for funding of embryo stem cell research." That court order also called on the government to continue its policy of not funding the research until after the review is completed.

Opponents of stem cell research also point out that stem cells may be taken from adults as well as from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and fat cells.

President Bush has said he prefers adult stem cell research, which some say may signal that he will move to block the other types.

In January, White House Press spokesman Ari Fleischer, reiterating Bush's statements during the 2000 presidential campaign, said Bush "would oppose federally funded research for experimentation on embryonic stem cells that require live human embryos to be discarded or destroyed."

Click here to get more information on stem cell research from the NIH website.

June 2001

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