In a move not unexpected, but still shocking, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Monday halted human embryonic stem cell experiments being conducted by researchers on its own campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The directive, communicated to researchers by Michael Gottesman (pictured), the agency’s Deputy Director for Intramural Research, came one week after a federal judge issued an injunction temporarily halting federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research until a lawsuit challenging its legality is decided.
Director Francis Collins said the next day that funding for experiments by extramural scientists would be suspended going forward. The agency made that official this evening, issuing this guidance for human embryonic stem cell researchers supported by its grants.
Until Monday morning, the agency had been silent on work by its own on-campus scienitsts. That changed when Gottesman sent the following email to staff today:
From: Gottesman, Michael (NIH/OD) [E]
Sent: Monday, August 30, 2010
Subject: Urgent: Human embryonic stem cells
“HHS has determined that the recent preliminary injunction ordered by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the matter of Sherley v. Sebelius is applicable to the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in intramural research projects. In light of this determination, effective today August 27, 2010, all intramural scientists who use hESC lines should initiate procedures to terminate these projects. Procedures that will conserve and protect the research resources should be followed.
All intramural Principal Investigators using hESCs should succinctly describe what research will be terminated, provide the parent annual report number (if the project is associated with one from FY 2009 or before), and describe any alternate use of funds that will become available as a result of this action. This information should be sent to the IC SD and a copy should be sent to Dr. Michael Gottesman, Deputy Director for Intramural Research.
Please contact me if you have questions.
Michael Gottesman, M.D.
Deputy Director for Intramural Research, NIH
Eight projects on the NIH campus use human embryonic stem cells. Another unit characterizes cell lines after they are added to the NIH Stem Cell Registry.
“This is like when there’s a flood. You decide what you can take with you,” said one dejected scientist who project was frozen this morning.
Unlike NIH-funded scientists at universities, who remain free to seek institutional or private funding to support their work until the lawsuit is resolved, such options — even if they could find them — appear foreclosed to NIH employees by the Gottesman e-mail. (NIH officials were not commenting publicly on the matter.)
There is also angst among on-campus scientists about what they can preserve. Are they allowed, for instance, to analyze data or look at images that have already been generated by their human embryonic cell lines? May they deal with metabolic products that have been secreted, or gene expression products from the lines? May they publish papers citing the lines?
“I am looking forward to the next letter that says exactly what we are allowed to use in terms of the data that has already been collected on these lines,” says the scientist. “There is a lot of anxiety about: what can we do now?”