Embryonic Stem Cell Research’s Future Uncertain

On August 23, federal district court judge Royce Lambreth ordered that federal funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research stop. The opinion ordering the preliminary injunction issued in the case Sherley v. Sebelius stated that continued hESC research could cause two adult stem cell researchers “irreparable harm” and that it was banned under the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which forbids federal funding of experiments that required the destruction of human embryos. Following an emergency filing by the Department of Justice, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia September 9 issued a temporary administrative stay to the injunction issued by Judge Lambreth, meaning that NIH could continue both its intramural hESC projects and extramural application and grant process until further action is taken on the case.
While the Justice Department continues to work on the legal case in support of hESC, members of Congress renewed efforts to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, introduced by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) in the House and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) in the Senate.  The bill was originally introduced in the House in March 2010.  DeGette was working with Congressional lawyers to ensure the bill language would nullify the Dickey-Wicker Amendment as well as codify the executive order President Obama issued in support of hESC research.  
In addition, Appropriations Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) held a hearing on September 16 that examined the promise of hESC research.  NIH Director Francis Collins testifying at the hearing, expressed concern that the uncertainty caused by the legal proceedings is causing researchers to abandon research in this area and alter grant proposals rather than start a research project they cannot finish.  
It was unclear at press time whether the House or Senate would vote on the stem cell legislation during the lame duck after the November elections. 

2011 Federal Budget Update

Yet again, Congress failed to pass the appropriation bills that provide funding for the federal government by the start of the 2011 fiscal year on October 1.  Congress  instead to pass ed a continuing resolution to fund the agencies at the 2010 levels through mid-November, at which time they will reconvene for a lame
duck session.  

Tabak Appointed NIH Deputy Director

Lawrence A. Tabak, was appointed principal deputy director of the NIH by Director Francis Collins in August.  Tabak has been the Director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research since 2000.  He also served as acting NIH deputy director in 2009 and most recently as the acting director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiative.
Tabak received his undergraduate degree from City College of the City University of New York, his DDS. from Columbia University, and both a PhD and certificate of proficiency in endodontics from the University
of Buffalo.

Biophysical Society Comments on Regulations for Synthetic Biology

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is preparing a report for the President on whether new regulations are needed in synthetic biology in light of the May 2010 announcement that the Venter Institute has created a synthetic genome.  
As part of the process, the Council requested input from the public.
The Biophysical Society’s Public Affairs Committee prepared comments that were approved by the Executive Board and sent by Society President Peter Moore on behalf of Society.
In those comments, Moore wrote that “while the development of a synthetic genome was a newsworthy accomplishment, it did not raise any unprecedented ethical issues because it is not qualitatively different from much that has been done previously.”  Rather, the Board recommended that “in addition to (re-)examining the ethical issues that surround genetic engineering, the Commission should consider ways to enhance, broaden, and strengthen education in the biological sciences, including molecular biology ... It would also be useful if some mechanism could be found for heightening the sensitivity of biological scientists to ethical concerns that surround the work they do.”
The Commission held a second meeting on synthetic biology in September and is expected to present its recommendations to the President this fall.  

President’s Advisors Make Recommendations to Improve STEM Education

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on September 15 that included a plan for improvements in K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education.   In the report, Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future, the President’s advisors make specific recommendations to better prepare America’s K-12 students in STEM subjects and also to inspire those students—including those underrepresented in STEM fields—to challenge themselves with STEM classes, engage in STEM activities outside the school classroom, and consider pursuing careers in those fields.
The report advises the federal government to:
• Recruit and train 100,000 great STEM teachers over the next decade;
• Recognize and reward the top five percent of the Nation’s STEM teachers;
• Create 1,000 new STEM-focused schools;
• Use technology to drive innovation;
• Create opportunities for inspiration through individual and group experiences outside the classroom;
• Support the current state-led movement for shared standards in math and science.

In preparing the report and its recommendations, PCAST assembled a Working Group of experts in curriculum development and implementation, school administration, teacher preparation and professional development, effective teaching, out-of-school activities, and educational technology.
The report can be read in its entirety at http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports