Stem cell heroes and villains

Stem cell research in the U.S. has been on a roller coaster ride the past few weeks. First, federal judge Royce Lamberth surprised everyone on August 23 by calling a halt to all federally-funded work on embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Hundreds of NIH-funded scientists learned overnight that their funding was about to be cut off, halting work on cures for a wide range of incurable diseases and conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord damage, Lou Gehrig’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and others.

Then, this past Thursday, a federal appeals court announced a temporary stay on Judge Lamberth’s ruling, which allows the funding to continue. However, the court gave both sides only until September 20th to make new arguments, and the research could again be called to a halt before the month is out. Many scientists, including this one, hope the appeals court will throw out the case and let the research proceed.*

Stem cell research is one of the most promising opportunities for truly revolutionary breakthroughs in human health that we’ve seen in decades. Unfortunately, its progress has been slowed dramatically in the U.S. due to objections from the religious right, which mistakenly confuses stem cell research with abortion. Many of these opponents don’t seem to know that thousands of fertilized human eggs are discarded every year, perfectly legally, by fertility clinics, and their opposition to embryonic stem cell research only serves to hamper progress on life-saving cures.

So who is the villain in this latest battle? Much of the media attention has focused on Judge Lamberth, whose interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment has been disputed by many legal and medical experts (for example, here and here). I don’t want to re-hash those arguments here. Instead, let’s take a look at the so-called scientists who filed the case, and examine their claims.

The case that halted all embryonic stem cell research was filed by James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, with the backing of anti-abortion groups. Sherley is at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute (BBRI), a small research institute in Boston, and Deisher is at a small startup company in Seattle called AVM Biotechnology. Both work on adult stem cells. Their main claim in the lawsuit is that the 2009 executive order by President Obama, which broadened the types of embryonic stem cell research permitted in the U.S., caused them “irreparable harm.” Why? Because, they argued, this would allow other researchers to compete against them for federal funds, making it harder for them to obtain funding.

As a scientist, I have to say that this is a ridiculous argument. It might make sense to a judge or a lawyer, but it is almost the antithesis of what science is all about. Sherley and Deisher are saying, essentially, that we should fund their work instead of more promising, better research. In other words, they’re admitting that their work won’t make the cut if it has to compete against embryonic stem cell research. So they admit that their work is, basically, not very good – but they still want funding, and therefore they sued the government. As my colleague, stem cell scientist Dr. Curt Civin said, "These guys are using a court process in what should be a scientific process."

Sherley is a notorious publicity hound. When he was denied tenure by MIT in 2007, he went on a hunger strike (briefly) to draw attention to his case. MIT stuck by its decision, and the EEOC ruled that MIT had “bona-fide, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions” in denying him tenure. Sherley left and joined BBRI, a far less prestigious institute than MIT.

A good scientist would be embarrassed to admit publicly – as Sherley has done in his lawsuit – that he can’t win funding if he’s forced to compete. And I can see why Sherley is worried: a PubMed search reveals that he hasn’t published any new scientific papers since 2008, and his own website at BBRI shows the same thing. So maybe his problem isn’t that his work is inferior – it’s just that he isn’t doing any research at all. This reveals the hypocrisy of his lawsuit: if he’s not even publishing, he can’t possibly expect to win NIH funding, which undercuts his claim that he is being “harmed” by NIH’s policy on embryonic stem cell research. (And Sherley and Deisher admitted to the Wall St. Journal that they were recruited by lawyers to file this lawsuit.)

If Sherley wants to continue to function as a working scientist – and I’m not convinced that he does – then he needs to act like one. Scientists don’t sue when someone else comes up with a better idea. Instead, we get to work. Sherley should drop his lawsuit and get back to the lab.

(See also my fellow blogger Matt Herper’s post on this topic.)

*Disclaimer: I am a member of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, a state commission established by the legislature and the governor to promote human stem cell research through state-funded grants. The views expressed here, as always, are my own, and do not represent the Commission.


  1. You notice the similarity in the argument by Sherley and Deisher now, and Bush v. Gore in 2000? You remember the irreperable harm COUNTING THE VOTES would cause Bush? And what was that irreperable harm? Why, he would lose the election!

    Just as continuing stem cell research would harm S & D by allowing better research to continue...

    Bush prevailed, as we all know, as I expect S & D will also, in a world gone mad.

  2. Juvenile is the first word that popped into mind about this. Lazy scientists afraid to lose their funding recruiting help from the self-righteous right, like some slacker in class cheating on an exam off their neighbor in exchange for some special favor after school.

    We shouldn't have to hope that some insane yet strangely altruistic mad scientist with unlimited funding is secretly working ways to exploit the mechanisms of stem cell to benefit everyone for whom such therapy would be a lifesaver.

    Yet, in the face of this kind of sad revelation, I'd gladly throw that scientist some coin myself.


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