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European embryo stem cell research news

10 November 2003
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 233

Two votes that will affect funding and support for embryo stem cell research took place in the European Parliament last week. The Environment Committee voted against proposals that sought to ban embryo stem cell research in the European Union (EU) member states, while the Industry Committee voted in favour of EU funding for such research. Scientists are hoping that research on embryo stem cells - the body's 'master cells' that can grow into any type of tissue - will lead to new treatments for many different diseases. British MEP David Bowe, a member of both committees, said he was 'delighted' with the results. He told The Scientist magazine that he thought the European Parliament was 'realising Europe can't be run as if it were a single state with a religious consensus'.

The Environment Committee adopted a second reading of a report on standards for research involving human tissues and cells, by 43 votes to five, with four abstentions. It rejected a series of proposed amendments aimed at banning embryo stem cell research, which were present in the first reading introduced over a year ago. According to a statement by the European Parliament, the committee has opted to focus less on ethical issues, which lie outside the scope of the directive, and more on quality and safety. The amendments adopted last week deal with payments to tissue and cell donors, donor consent and donor anonymity.

In what was described as a 'highly charged and emotional vote', the Industry Committee approved the amending of proposed European Commission guidelines on funding research involving embryo stem cells, by 28 votes to 22, with two abstentions. Funds will now be available for such research from the EU's sixth Framework Programme (FP6) budget, although the projects will be subject to 'strict ethical guidelines'. But the committee rejected most of the amendments seeking to impose even stricter conditions on embryo stem cell research.

The legislation governing research that involves deriving stem cells from human embryos varies widely across EU member states. It is permitted in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, but prohibited in Austria, Germany, France, Ireland, and until recently, Spain. Three member states - Luxembourg, Italy and Portugal - currently have no specific legislation on the issue.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries spoke in favour of loosening the country's laws on embryo research recently. She said that the first clause in the German constitution, which protects human dignity, does not apply to human embryos in the laboratory. Her speech has received criticism from church officials, doctors and politicians, but some German scientists have welcomed her outspoken views. 'In Germany we need more courage in science and in politics' said Detlev Ganten, director of the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch. 'I think her comments have encouraged people like me to speak out' he told the Scientist. However, other scientists feel the current laws, which allow research on imported embryo stem cell lines created before 1 January 2002, are adequate. 'Germany has an excellent stem cell law' said Wolfgang-Michael Franz of the University of Munich.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
EU clarifies stem cell rules
The Scientist |  5 November 2003
European parliament news report
European Parliament |  4 November 2003
Germany hints at loosening of stem cell law
Deutsche Welle |  30 October 2003
Speech stirs stem cell debate
The Scientist |  7 November 2003
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