Today, District of Columbia District Court Judge Royce Lamberth overturned his own ruling in the case of Sherley v. Sebelius that had banned use of funds from the National Institutes of Health for human embryonic stem cell research. The ruling is the latest, though by no means final, turn in this saga that has seen scientific arguments devolve into interpretations of dictionary definitions.
In 2009, the case against the NIH was first brought by researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, who claimed that funding of human embryonic stem cell research was illegal based on the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which bans federal funding of “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” Judge Lambert initially declared that the plaintiffs, both of whom work on adult stem cells, lacked standing to sue, being unable to demonstrate that the “injury” they would suffer due to funds being granted to projects involving human embryonic stem cells “is actual or imminent and traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and…that a favorable decision would redress the plaintiff’s injury.”
However, this opinion was overturned on appeal, with the D.C. Circuit Court finding that “the undisputed increased competition that Plaintiffs face…is sufficient in and of itself to confer…standing.” This ruling lead Judge Lambert to grant a preliminary injunction last August halting federal funding for all research projects involved with human embryonic stem cells, based on the merits of the case itself.
The injunction was stayed while the defendants appealed to the Circuit Court, claiming the so-called “Chevron deference,” in which the court “defer[s] to the agency’s interpretation of the statute if it is reasonable and consistent with the statute’s purpose,” applied to NIH’s interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. The Circuit Court ultimately agreed with the defendants, overturning the preliminary injunction and sending the case back to the District Court.
Forced to abide by the Circuit Court ruling, the latest ruling found that the NIH “reasonably interpreted the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to permit funding for human embryonic stem cell research because such research is not ‘research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed,’” thereby dismissing the plaintiff’s argument that the Dickey-Wicker amendment unambiguously banned such work.
Judge Lambert approved the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, conversely denying the plaintiffs’ own motion, thereby removing the possibility of a jury trial. However, the possibility of an appeal from the plaintiffs seems likely. Stay tuned to the Blotter for the latest on the case!