US Appeals Court Opens Federal Funding for Stem Cell Research

The U.S. Federal Court of Appeals has overturned an August 2010 ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, paving the way for broader exploration of how stem cells function and how they can be harnessed to treat a wide range of currently incurable diseases.

Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD

Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD

The ruling has been welcomed by the Obama Administration, which attempted to lift the ban in 2009, and by the nation’s top researchers in the field, including Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.

“This is a victory not only for the scientists, but for the patients who are waiting for treatments and cures for terrible diseases,” Kriegstein said. “This ruling allows critical research to move forward, enabling scientists to compare human embryonic stem cells to other forms of stem cells, such as the cell lines which are derived from skin cells, and to pursue potentially life-saving therapies based on that research.”

Kriegstein said the ruling will make a significant difference for stem cell research in general, including at UCSF, where the majority of stem cell investigators receive some funding from the National Institutes of Health for their research, as well as from private sources and from the state. The ruling enables those scientists to integrate research from various funding sources, thereby more quickly addressing the causes and therapies for diseases.

Kriegstein was one of two University of California scientists to file a Declaration in September 2010 in support of the UC Board of Regents’ motion to intervene in the August lawsuit, Sherley v. Sebelius.

Sherly v. Sebelius had argued that when the Obama Administration lifted a ban on federal funding for the research in March 2009, it had violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment which barred using taxpayer funds in research that destroyed embryos.

In response, a U.S. District Court judge temporarily ordered a ban on the use of federal money for the research until the court battle could be resolved.

The Appeals Court decision put the Dickey-Wicker question to rest, ruling that the amendment was “ambiguous” and that the NIH “seems reasonably to have concluded that although Dickey-Wicker bars funding for the destructive act of deriving an ESC (embryonic stem cell) from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC will be used,” according to the 2-1 decision.

“I am very happy with this decision, although I am surprised that it wasn’t a unanimous vote,” Kriegstein said. “In my opinion, the evidence in favor of pursuing this research is overwhelming compared to the arguments submitted to stop the research.”

UCSF is one of two universities, along with the University of Wisconsin, that pioneered human embryonic stem cell research in the United States, beginning in the late 1990s.

UCSF has developed one of the largest programs in the nation, primarily funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a voter-supported initiative that provided $3 billion to fund statewide research in lieu of federal funding for it. Funding from the NIH, private philanthropy and other state sources also have been critical for the program.

UCSF also launched the nation’s first stem cell PhD program in 2010, for which the first class already has been chosen and will begin in fall 2011.

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Photo: Susan Merrell/UCSF