April 25, 2003
By Andrew Scott
The European Commission yesterday took a step toward resolving its policy on the funding of stem cell research. Currently, funding of such research within the Sixth Framework Programme is banned. Angelo Vescovi, a pioneer stem cell researcher from the Stem Cell Research Institute of Milan, Italy, was among those urging the Commission to decide soon if and how it intends to lift the ban. "Time is of the essence," he said, "especially for those who can't wait for a cure."
Vescovi was speaking at a seminar in Brussels arranged to discuss a report released earlier this month summarizing the ethical and legislative issues facing the European Union and Commission. Among these are how the rights of an embryo should be weighed against the rights of a person suffering from disease, the suitability of alternative sources of human stem cell for research, and the validity of exploiting them in various ways.
The national government representatives at the seminar welcomed the Commission's report, commending it as a valuable summary of the current state of play in member states and of the key ethical and scientific issues. But they disagreed strongly on the way forward.
The representative of the German government pleaded, "Please do not finance research in areas that are banned in some member states." If the Commission heeds that plea, it could effectively ban all EU funding of human embryonic stem cell research for the foreseeable future. The German position was firmly endorsed by the government representatives from Austria and Italy.
The opposite view was expressed most strongly by the Belgian, British, and Swedish governments. They made the case for "pluralism," in which respect for diverging ethical viewpoints would allow EU funding for the research in countries that permit it.
This would be in line with the status quo, in which member states remain free to make national legislation covering this research. Two important developments in that process have just been announced. The Belgian parliament has approved legislation allowing cell cloning and research using human embryos under specified circumstances. In the United Kingdom, the patent office has said that inventions involving human embryonic stem cells can be patented, again under strictly specified circumstances.
Pan European legislation may follow in due course, although Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin has emphasized, "Regulating on ethical matters is the competence of the member states."
For the Commission, yesterday's seminar and the report presented at it form a crucial part of the consultations that will lead to firm proposals from the Commission in June. These proposals are keenly awaited. "Europe could take the scientific lead in this area," said Roger Pederson, of Cambridge University. He is well qualified to make that judgment, as a leading American stem cell researcher who has moved to the UK to conduct his research in a country where it enjoys broad public support and government backing.
In his closing remarks, Commissioner Busquin gave a hint of what the
Commission's eventual proposal may contain. "We are going to have to come
up with a pragmatic solution, possibly on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Copyright © 2003, The Scientist Inc.