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EU urged to continue funding stem cell research

25 June 2012

By Antony Blackburn-Starza

Appeared in BioNews 662

Six major UK research funding bodies have called for the continued funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research in the EU's programme for research and development.

A joint statement urging the European Parliament, European Commission and EU member states to support hESC funding, states: 'To maintain its global edge in this area of research, Europe must ensure all avenues of stem cell research continue to be financially supported'.

The European Parliament is currently debating its provisions for funding research and innovation under the proposed €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme, which will run from 2014 to 2020. The programme succeeds the current framework under which funding for hESC research is permitted.

Although the draft regulations include provisions for hESC research, supporters have raised concerns that lobbying by pro-life MEPs and some member states could mean funding is excluded. The European Court of Justice has recently ruled that patents on processes which use human embryos or require the destruction of human embryos are not patentable (reported in BioNews 630).

Opponents of hESC research argue it holds little therapeutic potential and funding should be restricted to research using adult cells, highlighting developments in creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) using adult skin cells means research on embryos is no longer necessary.

The joint statement, however, says all types of stem cells, including hESCs, have the potential to make advances in regenerative medicine and should be supported. 'It is too early to tell which route will be the most effective, for ultimate clinical use, so it is essential to keep all avenues of research open', it says. 'Any move to make hESC research ineligible for Horizon 2020 funding would risk holding back progress across the entire field'.

The joint statement was signed by the Association of Medical Research Charities, which represents 124 research charities in the UK; the British Heart Foundation; the European Genetic Alliances' Network; the Medical Research Council (MRC); Parkinson's UK and the Wellcome Trust.

Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the MRC, said it was 'absolutely vital' for funding to be maintained. 'European scientists are leading the way in this field and the first clinical trial of a hESC treatment for a form of blindness has recently received regulatory approval in the UK', he said. 'To derail such promising science based on the objections of a minority of member states, who do not wish their scientists to carry out this research, would be unwise and unfair, particularly to patients'.

Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said although the funding allocated to such research under Horizon 2020 is likely to be small compared to the overall budget, closing it down would be a 'massive blow' to scientific research. 'It will significantly set back research into very serious diseases including Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis and is likely to cost European research its competitive advantage', he said.

The joint statement supports the three main kinds of stem cell – hESCs, adult stem cells and fetal stem cells – arguing regenerative medicine has the potential to treat or cure neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson's and chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease. It says iPS cells are currently not safe enough to transplant into people and more research is needed to develop them to a standard suitable for therapeutic use.

Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are not derived through genetic modification, thus avoiding associated issues around safety and function, and have already begun to be used in clinical trials. The UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has approved Europe's first clinical trial hESCs to treat Stargardt's macular dystrophy, a genetic condition that causes blindness (reported in BioNews 626).

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