WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Friday the Obama administration can continue using federal money to fund human embryonic stem cell research, a possible avenue toward new treatments for many medical conditions.
The appeals court overturned a ruling by a federal judge who found that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines on such research violated the law because embryos were destroyed and it put other researchers working with adult stem cells at a disadvantage to win federal grants.
Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research, including many religious conservatives, argue that it is unacceptable because it destroys human embryos.
Such stem cells come from days-old human embryos and can produce any type of cell in the body. Scientists hope to be able to use them to address spinal cord injuries, cancer, diabetes and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last August blocked funding for such research. His decision was put on hold pending appeal so federal money continued to flow after the White House warned that millions of dollars in research would be ruined if halted.
A panel of three judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted 2-1 to overturn Lamberth's injunction.
The U.S. law was "ambiguous" and "did not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC (embryonic stem cell) will be used," the majority opinion said.
"Today's ruling is a victory for our scientists and patients around the world who stand to benefit from the groundbreaking medical research they're pursuing," White House spokesman Nicholas Papas said.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama expanded federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells in hopes it would lead to cures for diseases.
In a bid to answer critics, Obama directed the NIH to come up with an ethical process for paying for such research, specifically that the embryos that were used came from fertility clinics and were going to be thrown away otherwise.
The U.S. law on embryonic stem cell research funding prohibits the NIH from funding the creation of human embryos for research or the research in which a human embryo is destroyed, leading the judges to argue over its true intent.
Judge Douglas Ginsburg, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, wrote that it was "entirely reasonable" for the NIH to interpret the law as "permitting funding for research using cell lines derived without federal funding, even as it bars funding for the derivation of additional lines."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson said that the federal law was clear about banning funding for embryonic stem cell research and that the majority was engaging in "linguistic jujitsu" to back it.
The law "prohibits the expenditure of federal funds to engage in hESC (human embryonic stem cell) research in all of its sequences," Henderson, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, wrote in a 13-page dissent.
The case emerged from two researchers who opposed work with embryonic stem cells and sued to block such funding. They argued that they were at risk of being squeezed out of federal grants for their own work with adult stem cells, which do not involve the destruction of embryos.
The researchers, Dr. James Sherley, a biological engineer at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Theresa Deisher, of Washington-based AVM Biotechnology, could appeal the ruling to the full appeals court, a lawyer involved in the case said.
Samuel Casey of the Law of Life Project, an attorney involved in the challenge, also said they could pursue other issues before Lamberth. He said he was disappointed, but not surprised by the ruling, and was gratified that it was narrow.
Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute and founder of the Stem Cell Action Coalition, hailed the decision as lifting a cloud of uncertainty over research.
"This case is not over by any stretch but this lifts the cloud temporarily," he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by James Vicini and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington and Bill Berkrot in New York, editing by Will Dunham