Uneasy rider

The New York Times has reported on a nasty setback for embryonic stem cell research – apparently, DC District Court judge Royce Lamberth has ruled that Obama’s 2009 executive order, which reversed Bush-era constraints and allowed researchers to gain access to federal funding for human ESC work, is in violation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment.

And just what is that? Well, it’s a nasty little leech that’s been clinging tenaciously as a rider to the federal budget year after year since 1995 (roughly three years before James Thomson published his seminal human ESC cultivation article in Science), and stipulates that “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for… research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” That’s right, for 15 years now that sucker’s been hanging on, draining a steady stream of blood out of what should be a vital area of American life science research. And each and every time the budget gets passed, the amendment is renewed essentially without debate.

So who filed the challenge against Obama’s policy?

According to the Times:

The lawsuit at issue was brought last year on behalf of the adoption agency; two stem cell scientists, Dr. James L. Sherley and Dr. Theresa Deisher; embryos; and others. The judge dismissed the suit last year, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing, meaning they were not materially affected by the rule change.

But the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling last year, saying the two researchers could be harmed by the new policy since they worked exclusively with adult stem cells and would face increased competition for federal financing under the new policy. After the appeals court ruling, all but Dr. Sherley and Dr. Deisher were dropped as plaintiffs to the suit.

Tough break for those litigious embryos.

But say… doesn’t that first name sound a little familiar? Of course – he’s the guy who went on a 12-day hunger strike after an academic committee made the (admittedly controversial) decision not to grant him tenure. But more importantly (for this story), he’s also a prominent ESC research critic who once claimed in a Boston Globe editorial that “pigs will grow wings and fly before [ESC research] leads to successful medical therapies.”

And what about the second name? Hm. Well, she’s a former Amgen scientist who went on to found a company called AVM Biotechnology, which sounds innocuous, except that it’s apparently a contraction for its previous name, Ave Maria Biotechnology. Accordingly, AVM describes itself as “dedicated to the discovery, development and commercialization of safe, effective and affordable pro-life therapeutics.” As opposed to the “pro-death” therapeutics that have been plaguing the industry for generations. Their senior scientist is a former physicist who eventually got around to publishing a meager handful of papers on calcium regulation of actin filaments.

Most interestingly, one of their primary pillars appears to be exploiting the ungrounded and dangerous fears of the antivaxer movement alongside the religion card. From their website (emphasis theirs, obviously):

Economics, home schooling, religious and moral objections together account for the steady 10% of US children (400,000+) who are not vaccinated. Additionally, many parents would have moral objections to the use of aborted fetal cell lines for vaccine production, if they only knew.

In a June 2008 cover story, TIME magazine reports that perceived links between vaccinations and autism may be leading more parents to opt out of the full recommended US vaccine schedule. Parents have begun to demand what they consider to be ‘green’ vaccines, out of concern for the health and safety of their children.

Of course! The problem isn’t rampant misinformation about vaccine safety – it’s that our vaccines aren’t “green” enough! And anyway, your non-green vaccines are already thoroughly contaminated by the evils of abortion – at least according to AVM and ally Children of God for Life. In reality, this just means that many vaccines are propagated on MRC-5 cells, which were derived from fetal lung tissue nearly 45 years ago, or WI-38 cells, which were similarly derived in 1961. It’s safe to say that these cell lines can no longer be un-aborted, and in neither case, of course, are the cells themselves actually PART of the vaccines themselves, which consist of attenuated, non-pathogenic versions of the virus in question.

Anyhow. These are the two parties who have apparently convinced Judge Lamberth that their funding would be endangered by enabling federal funding for ESC work. The wisdom and ramifications of this ruling can be debated – and it certainly seems like the NIH and HHS are already immersed in pondering the next move – but honestly? The judge makes some reasonable interpretations based on the language of this ridiculous budget-riding leech of an amendment, and the simple fact is this should never have been able to happen. The real problem here is Dickey-Wicker. The US government nobly (in my opinion) tried to split hairs by separating derivation of ESCs from research performed using ESCs and failed, because the judge decided that Dickey-Wicker leaves no such room for that kind of weaseling:

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment unambiguously prohibits the use of federal funds for all research in which a human embryo is destroyed. It is not limited to prohibit federal funding of only the “piece of research” in which an embryo is destroyed. Thus, if ESC research is research in which an embryo is destroyed, the Guidelines, by funding ESC research, violate the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

Of course, Judge Lamberth goes on to make some questionable-at-best assertions about ‘irreparable loss’, to the effect that “the Guidelines threaten the very livelihood of plaintiffs Sherley and Deisher,” whereas ESC researchers lose nothing since this is simply a return to the pre-Obama status quo. To which I say – tell that to George Daley. But then again, Lamberth should never have had to make this ruling.

The moral of the story is: this really sucks tremendously, and it never would have happened if all those supposedly pro-science members of the Democratically-controlled Congress (and keep in mind that Dickey first came about under Bill Clinton) could have collectively grown a pair, gotten their act together and helped bolster Obama’s efforts to broaden ESC research by actually reforming – or at least debating - this completely outdated and overly broad piece of Congressional hackery. And then I remember that these are the same Democrats who nearly derailed their own flagship healthcare reform effort over internal squabbles over funding for abortion. Then I really just need another beer.

Updated: Oh boy. Don’t know how I missed this gem – apparently, the reason AVM is pushing autism on their front page is because Dr. Deisher believes that although thimerosal probably doesn’t cause autism, she thinks it’s entirely possible that the use of fetally-derived cells for the production of vaccines does. According to an article on her “work”: “Deisher, along with physicist Marissa LaMadrid, PhD, authored the paper investigating whether improper insertion of DNA into the vaccine recipient cells can cause autism.” (emphasis mine) Wow, now I totally need that beer.

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