The future funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research under the European Union (EU) may be in jeopardy after its inclusion in the next research funding programme is challenged by MEPs.
A Nature News blog reports the European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee voted to exclude hESC research from Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme due to run from 2014, citing the contentious decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) prohibiting the granting of patents for processes that involve the destruction of embryos at any stage.
The Committee said if hESC research cannot be patented under European law, then it could not contribute to economic competitiveness and should not be funded by Horizon 2020. Patents are required to help stimulate EU competition, which is one of the intended functions of the funding programme.
In the draft proposals of Horizon 2020, the €80 billion programme would finance stem cell research including hESC research, which is allowed under the current programme. However, four pro-life MEPs, who do not agree with public funds contributing to such research, have indicated that they intend to challenge the legality of Horizon 2020 for its inclusion of hESC research.
Peter Liese, an MEP from Germany who opposes the programme, was quoted in Europolitics as saying: 'We reject harmonisation of national regulations on this sensitive issue in Europe'. Two key issues that opponents of Horizon 2020 intend to address are the patentability of hESC research and how projects currently under way are to be funded.
The ECJ judgment forms a focal point for the argument against the programme, as Professor Klaus Gärditz of the University of Bonn in Germany submits. He told Europolitics that 'life cannot be taken away to be marketed'.
'Human dignity...is a primary right', he said. 'Research on embryonic stem cells must therefore be excluded by substantive law. If certain prohibited areas are subsidised, the entire framework programme is in danger. The risk to European research is huge'.
Supporters of hESC under the Horizon 2020 programme argue that the research is essential for the development of treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease. It is also argued that alternatives to hESC research, such as using induced pluripotent stem cells or adult stem cells, are insufficient methods in comparison. Fundamentally, those in favour of hESC research say that cell lines used are obtained from IVF clinics, and would otherwise be destroyed.
The UK and Europe are at the pinnacle of stem cell research, says Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, who argues that 'any scaling back of the EU's investment would send out a dangerous message that could seriously damage this area of research in Europe, to the detriment of patients in the future'.
Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, in an earlier joint statement urging funding of hESC research in Europe, said: 'The European Parliament must send a clear sign that it recognises the importance of [hESC] research...to close down such a vital avenue of research would be a massive blow to European science'.
'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 added.
Whether Horizon 2020, as it stands, is to be advanced or rejected needs to be decided by the EU's Parliament and Council by the end of 2013.