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Spain and Switzerland to begin ES cell research

28 February 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 297

The Spanish government has approved four research projects using human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) . Last November, the Spanish government formally approved a decree clarifying the country's laws on ES cell research. It had passed legislation on assisted reproduction and embryo research in October 2003, but did not at the time specify the mechanisms that would allow Spanish scientists to undertake research projects.

The new law allows Spanish scientists to conduct research on ES cells derived from embryos left over from IVF and donated by the couple that created them, as long as they have been frozen for more than five years. Couples must sign an informed consent form and grant permission for the specific research project their embryos are to be used in. Researchers must apply to a commission on a case by case basis. Applications for research projects have to detail which embryos will be used, as well as showing why it is necessary to use human, rather than animal, cells for the research. Any ES cell lines created must be registered in the national stem cell bank and made available to other researchers.

Now, Spain's health ministry has approved four specific ES cell projects. The first, led by Bernat Soria, one of Spain's top medical researchers, will investigate the use of ES cells to create insulin-secreting pancreatic tissue to treat diabetes. Another project will study how to use ES cells in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, and the final two involve research to help scientists fine-tune techniques used to transform ES cells into other kinds of cells and tissue.

In Switzerland, a new law on ES cell research will come into force on 1 March. The new law was 'overwhelmingly' approved by voters in a referendum last November, endorsing legislation passed by the Swiss government in December 2003. The Swiss law, like Spain's, is a little more restrictive than in some other countries where ES cell research is permitted. It only allows the research to take place on embryos left over from fertility treatments, donated for the purposes of research by the couple who created them, after full informed written consent has been obtained. Embryos cannot be created solely for research purposes and the use of any embryo is prohibited after it is seven days old. The use of embryos for commercial purposes is prohibited. In addition, every research project must be approved by an ethics committee. Anyone breaking the law will be liable to a fine of up to 500,000 Swiss Francs or a five year jail sentence. As of 1 March, existing ES cell research projects must be declared within three months to the Federal Health Office.

Anita Holler, from the Federal Health Office's Biomedicine Division, said 'we do not expect to receive many applications on 1 March', adding that 'it is a fair assumption that the first projects to get off the ground will be using imported cells, because creating new lines of stem cells from supernumerary embryos takes time'. During the debate preceding the referendum, which had been organised by anti-abortion groups trying to stop the law taking effect, several researchers let it be known that they would propose projects if the vote was favourable. Holler believes that enough embryos will be donated to allow research to go ahead - where previously couples had to have their left over embryos destroyed, she said, 'under the new law, couples have two options. Either to destroy supernumerary embryos, or let them be used for research'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Spain approves embryonic stem cell projects
Cordis News |  25 February 2005
Spain's Government Approves Embryonic Stem Cell Research Projects
Lifenews |  24 February 2005
Stem cell research set to begin
Swissinfo |  28 February 2005
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