Tuesday, July 25, 2006

EU to fund stem cells

EU to fund stem cells
By Dan Bilefsky
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: July 24, 2006


BRUSSELS The European Union agreed Monday to finance human stem cell research, bypassing fierce opposition from a group of predominantly Roman Catholic countries that argued that the bloc risked paying for research that was both immoral and unethical.

The funding will only be available under strict conditions, including a ban on research aimed at human cloning for reproductive purposes and on research intended to modify the genetic heritage of humans. The funding will come from the EU's research budget of €51 billion, or $64 billion, for 2007 to 2013.

The agreement was reached after more than six hours of heated debate and was resisted by predominantly Catholic countries that included Malta, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia.

Opposition to the bloc's proposal to fund stem cell research was overcome after Janez Potocnik, the EU's research commissioner, assured science ministers from the EU's 25 member states that under no circumstances would the EU fund research that involved destroying human embryos for the procurement of stem cells.

Instead, he said the EU would fund research using embryos that would otherwise be discarded - for example, from in vitro fertilization centers.

"We will not pay for the destruction of embryos with EU money," Potocnik told reporters, adding that countries that do not allow stem cell research would not be required to do so now.

The EU's decision to finance stem cell research, albeit with explicit caveats, is a bold departure from events in the United States, where President George W. Bush last week used his veto for the first time to limit federal funding of stem cell research. He said such research "crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect."

The EU was able to overcome its own emotional objections after Italy, Slovenia and Germany, initially opponents, agreed to endorse the proposal.

The issue is particularly sensitive in Germany, where memories of Nazi genetic experiments remain vivid.

"The protection of human dignity, the right to life, need to be properly entrenched," said Annette Schavan, Germany's research minister. "There should be no financial incentives for the destruction and killing of embryos."

Poland, Austria, Malta, Slovakia and Lithuania voted against the updated rules, all for "ethical and moral" reasons, they said.
"Do we really want 300 to 400 fertilized embryos destroyed to create a line of stem cells?" said the Austrian science minister, Elizabeth Gehrer. "The destruction of human embryos is not something we can support."

Stem cells taken from human embryos are described as "mother cells" because they can give rise to dozens of specialized cells and tissues that can be transplanted into the body and help repair vital organs. Scientists hope that one day they could help treat Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other health problems.

But the Roman Catholic Church and some human rights groups say it is immoral to extract stem cells from any human embryo even for the purpose of saving lives because doing so destroys the embryo and is tantamount to murder.

Human stem cell research in the EU is financed largely from national budgets in countries where such research is permitted and a ban on EU funding would have had little practical effect. However, experts said that it would have nevertheless been a blow to European stem cell research and could have impeded research and innovation.

Countries led by Britain argued strongly in favor of stem cell research, saying that a ban would stall Europe's scientific progress and prevent the potential cure of debilitating diseases. "It is morally unacceptable to withhold these advances from patients, because it offers potentially tremendous advantages to European citizens," said David Sainsbury, the British science minister.

Making an impassioned plea before the vote, the Portuguese science minister, José Mariano Gago, said: "I hope that none of the colleagues will ever need treatment which does not yet exist for dementia or Alzheimer's. If you find yourself in such a position I hope you will be able to say you did not stand in the way of such research."

Stephen Hawking, one of the world's best-known scientists, who suffers from motor neurone disease, lashed out Monday at what he called the "reactionary" forces in the United States and Europe that are trying to ban research on stem cells from human embryos.

Hawking said banning the use of stem cells from human embryos was the equivalent of opposing the use of donated organs from dead people.

"The fact that the cells may come from embryos is not an objection because the embryos are going to die anyway," he told the newspaper The Independent in London. "It is morally equivalent to taking a heart transplant from a victim of a car accident."

At present, individual EU countries can decide for themselves whether funds can be used for research into stem cells that have been derived from spare embryos.

But Austria, Poland, Slovakia and Malta are against the notion that the bloc should fund stem cell research in some countries if the same research is prohibited in other member states.

Potocnik, the EU's research commissioner, said research funding should not be determined by nations at either extremes of the debate but by the bloc's majority. "Relying on the ethical standards of either most restrictive or the most liberal countries would simply be against the principle of the EU," he said.

A Eurobarometer survey in May showed that 59 percent of Europeans approved of embryonic stem cell research, provided there was some governmental oversight of the projects.

The laws on stem cell research across the EU vary widely, with Britain endorsing such research and Germany enforcing a total ban.

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