Researchers at dozens of labs across the country are scrambling today to figure out exactly where their research stands and if feeding their cell cultures is even legal after a ruling handed down yesterday by a federal judge blocked President Obama’s 2009 executive order expanding the scope of embryonic stem cell research. At issue: Whether or not Obama’s policy violates a federal ban on federal money contributing to the destruction of embryos. At stake: A whole lot of ongoing medical science that could be cut down in stride.

The ruling, according to Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for D.C., should return the federal policy to the “status quo,” an ambiguous statement that some understand as a return to the Bush administration’s policy of limiting federally funded research to work on the 21 embryonic stem cell lines already created in 2001. But some scientists worry that the ruling may condemn all embryonic stem cell research illegal, including research that was allowed under the Bush policy.

President Obama moved early in his presidency to expand the kinds of stem cell research that can receive federal dollars. The government still cannot fund research that directly destroyed embyos, but under Obama’s rules federal money could fund research on cell lines outside of those original 21 the Bush rules had limited researchers to. So if private financing could be used to obtain or create new stem cells (usually from fertility clinics and with consent of unpaid donors), federal funds could then be used to conduct research on those cells.

Yesterday’s ruling strikes down the line between embryonic destruction and later work on cells resulting from that destruction. What’s unclear is how far it goes. Some scientists worry that the ruling may make illegal even work that was allowed under the Bush policy. Some think that if they continue the research they were doing yesterday they may be in violation of the law, while others have interpreted it to mean that research may continue but the National Institutes of Health must use the Bush-era guidelines for federal grants going forward.

In the meantime, some researchers have simply told their labs not to use anything in their research that was paid for with federal dollars until Department of Justice lawyers figured out exactly what the ruling means. More on this as it develops, but for the time being sensitive stem cell experiments nationwide appear to be in a state of limbo. More details on the legal minutiae are available through the NYT link below.

New York Times