WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court yesterday permitted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to proceed for now, while it considers a judge's ruling that had temporarily shut off the funds.

Yesterday's court action may be a legal reprieve but not one for laboratories. The National Institutes of Health has suspended work to fund new research projects on embryonic stem cells, and while NIH didn't immediately comment, observers say the scientific process needed to restart projects is unlikely before a final court decision.

"No way this would be a scientific reprieve," said Patrick Clemins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While scientists who already have received taxpayer money for stem cell experiments can continue their work until their dollars run out, 22 projects that were due to get yearly checks in September were told they'd have to find other money to continue their work. Most researchers do have multiple sources of funding, and are working now to separate what they can and can't do, Clemins said.

The government is asking the appeals court in Washington to strike down a preliminary order issued on Aug. 23 by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth blocking federal funding for some stem cell research.

The three-member appeals panel said it is suspending Lamberth's ruling for now. The appeals judges say they want more time to deal with issues in the government's appeal.

Lamberth rejected the administration's request to let funding continue while it pursues an appeal of his order.

The appeals court said the purpose of its administrative stay was to give the judges sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the Justice Department's emergency motion which seeks to suspend Lamberth's ruling.

Yesterday's move "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits" of the Justice Department's motion, the appeals judges said in their three-paragraph order.

Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said her organization is very pleased that the appeals court has taken the step.

"It is crucial that federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research be restored permanently and this stay is a step in that direction," Hughes said in a statement.

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