Jan. 31, 2002
By Christian Schwägerl
BONN. Talking to the press at the university's Institute of Epileptology here on Thursday, Oliver Brüstle, clad in a white lab coat, looked understandably pleased, if slightly uneasy.
After a wait of several months, he has finally gotten the green light to go ahead with his project to find out how human embryonic stem cells can be made to develop into nerve cells and how suitable these cells would be as substitute tissue for the treatment of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
But following the German parliament's decision on Wednesday, it is clear that this technology will not be allowed to continue harvesting embryos. After an intensive debate, Germany's parliamentarians decided that embryos are the future children of future parents and as such must receive the full protection of the law.
Nor will researchers be allowed to import freshly "obtained" embryonic material either. In other words, therapeutic cloning is out of the question, as is the production of the 3,000 cell lines from tens of thousands of embryos that would be necessary to meet the therapeutic needs of the entire population. Embryonic stem cells will be available only for basic research concerned with creating adult cells for therapeutic uses.
The debate on the future of genetic engineering and biomedicine will have to change. There were a number of extraordinary paradoxes inherent in the arguments being made last year. Scientists, of all people, were heard expounding views similar to those of the Old Testament Israelites, arguing that humanness began the moment the child "quickened" in the womb or even at birth. At the opposite extreme were the members of religious groups who used biological arguments to define the moment at which we become human. Scientists concerned with the extraordinarily complex interrelationships of human cells, genes and proteins suddenly had no qualms about degrading embryos to the status of mere "cell clusters," while the allegedly anti-scientific lobby cited biological reasons for championing embryo protection.
What is the future of science when its power to explain and manipulate is increasing exponentially, while at the same time its respect for material being, for cells and human genetics is rapidly shrinking? If the biological sciences want to retain their right to enter the last unexplored regions of life, then they must behave like a civilized authority rather than a band of adventurous juveniles.
Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, has now pointed stem cell research in the right direction. The law forbidding the killing of embryos for research purposes stands like a monolith in the biopolitical landscape. Now researchers can turn their creativity to exploring how to use adult stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Existing cultures of embryonic stem cells can be used to assist in this effort.
Now that we have all survived Wednesday's watershed debate intact, it is time to look ahead to what the future holds. Researchers will continue to decipher the human genome, while protein specialists will soon be able to describe how the tens of thousands of proteins inside each cell interact. Gene chips and protein chips that provide early warning of certain pathological risks will soon be on the market.
Bioinformatics will continue to work on the use of computers as virtual life models, while the neurosciences will seek to unravel the mysteries of the human brain and the structures underlying learning, memory and consciousness. Ecology and taxonomy are already showing us how we treat other life forms and how we should be treating them to guarantee their survival. Meanwhile, countless labs are already busy developing new varieties and perhaps soon even new species of flora and fauna. Last, but not least, we have already begun using such techniques as tissue replacement and tissue design to transform our own bodies.
The sheer speed of progress is truly breathtaking. But it does not have to be frightening. On the contrary, the biological revolution should excite us in the positive sense of the word, especially now that stem cell research has at last been freed of the charge that it was built on the graveyard of human dignity. Now the parliament needs to back up its pledges of increased support for research. Soon enough, when news of botched experiments in Britain or the United States causes public unease, German researchers too will realize the value of setting firm limits.
Otmar Wiestler, Brüstle's former
boss at the Institute of Neurobiology, was quick to identify the opportunities
posed by the restrictions the Bundestag imposed. On Thursday, he said he
would like to see Germany's policy on stem cell research adopted worldwide.
The pool of 72 stem cell cultures should be made accessible to researchers
the world over, he said, and on fair terms too to remove incentives to
destroy still more embryos. He said he would also like to see the creation
of an International Human Stem Cell Project, along the lines of the Human
Genome Project, to develop usable stem cells obtained without killing a
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2000