A federal appeals court handed the Obama administration a victory Friday in its effort to broaden federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit lifted a preliminary injunction that had blocked such funding, sending the case back to a trial judge.
The issue of federal financing of stem cell research is a contentious one, pitting scientists who say that stem cells will lead to medical advances against opponents who say it is immoral to destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells.
On Friday, Obama administration officials hailed the decision. "This is a momentous day -- not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies," Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.
Opponents said it was still early in the legal battle. "It's disappointing, but we have a long way to go," said David Prentice, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, which opposes federal funding for stem cell research but is not a party in the legal action.
The appellate court decision centered on a 1996 law, called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, that prohibits federal funding for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk or injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero."
Researchers obtain human embryonic stem cells from human embryos that have been destroyed in the harvesting process. That means no federal funds can been used to procure stem cells, although many colonies of stem cells have been produced using private funding.
In 2009, the Obama administration reversed earlier restrictions and issued new rules designed to make it possible for scientists to obtain federal funds to experiment on many more existing colonies of stem cells.