The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The government may resume funding of embryonic stem cell research for now, an appeals court said Thursday, but the short-term approval may be of little help to research scientists caught in a legal battle that has just begun.

It is far from certain that scientists actually will continue to get federal money as they struggle to decide what to do with research that is hard to start and stop.

After U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary order on Aug. 23, the National Institutes of Health suspended work on funding new research projects on embryonic stem cells. While NIH didn’t immediately comment Thursday on the temporary stay from the appeals court, the government’s process for approving these grants is unlikely to resume before a final court resolution.

With appeals, that could be many months off.

“No way this would be a scientific reprieve,” said Patrick Clemins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Scientists who already have received taxpayer money for stem cell experiments can continue their work until their dollars run out, but 22 projects that were due to get yearly checks in September were told after Lamberth’s order that they’d have to find other money.

Most of the researchers have multiple sources of funding and are working now to separate what they can and can’t continue, Clemins said.

Medical researchers value stem cells because they are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body. Research eventually could lead to cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, they believe.

The Obama administration is asking the appeals court in Washington to strike down a preliminary injunction by Lamberth that blocked the funding. Lamberth left little doubt that he is inclined to issue a final order barring that funding, but he has yet to issue that ruling, which inevitably will set off a new round of appeals.

Lamberth concluded that those who challenged the government support had demonstrated a strong likelihood of success in their lawsuit. He said the clear intent of a law passed by Congress was to prohibit federal spending on research in which a human embryo is destroyed.

Steven H. Aden, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is involved with that lawsuit, said after Thursday’s action, “The American people should not be forced to pay for even one more day of experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments and violate an existing federal law.”

Lamberth rejected the administration’s request to let funding continue while it appealed his preliminary order, but the three-member appeals panel disagreed on Thursday. It is suspending Lamberth’s ruling for now.

The appeals judges pointedly cautioned that their three-paragraph order “should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits.”

“Nothing has really changed, because all issues are still out there and still unresolved,” said Dr. Norman Fost, director of the bioethics program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who was on the National Academy of Sciences committee that wrote the first national guidelines on embryonic human stem cells.

Samuel B. Casey, part of the legal team representing those who filed the lawsuit, said, “We expect that when the court of appeals reviews the merits of the case, it will agree with the logic that led Judge Lamberth to issue the preliminary injunction.”

He added, “We remain confident in our case against the unlawful, unethical and unnecessary federal funding of experimentation on human embryos.”

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the appeals court order “will allow this important, lifesaving research to continue while we present further arguments to the court in the weeks to come.”

John Robertson, a University of Texas professor who specializes in law and bioethics, said Thursday’s appeals court order doesn’t relieve researchers working on multiyear projects of the uncertainty of whether there will be funding beyond this year.

“They’ve received the first year of a grant, and they will have to stop when the money runs out,” Robertson said in an interview.

Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said her organization was pleased.

“It is crucial that federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research be restored permanently, and this stay is a step in that direction,” Hughes said. “While this issue continues to be argued in the courts, we call on Congress to move swiftly to resolve this issue and secure the future of this important biomedical research.”

The appeals judges in the case are Karen LeCraft Henderson, Janice Rogers Brown, and Thomas B. Griffith. Henderson was appointed by George H.W. Bush and Brown and Griffith were appointed by George W. Bush.

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