Stem cell research approved by British Parliament while European colleagues prefer to wait and see

London 20 December 2000A majority of 366 members of the British Parliament has voted in favour of an amendment to extend the United Kingdom's existing rules on embryo research in a recent House of Commons debate, compared to 174 members who were against. The controversial decision will allow stem cells, which have the special capacity to grow into a number of body tissues, to be taken from embryos very early in their development.

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Scientists believe the ability of these cells to grow into complete body tissues could be used to help treat a number of debilitating diseases and even revolutionise organ transplantation. Many opponents to embryo research though, are convinced that the potential to misuse the technology is too dangerous to condone any extension to current laws.

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the people in favour of the new legislation, that was led by the Labour Member of Parliament Yvette Cooper. "The research must be allowed to go ahead", Mrs. Cooper argued, "as it may hold the key to healing within the human body. There are immense potential benefits from allowing this research to be carried out, in particular for those suffering from dreadful chronic disease."

On the other hand, the 174 Members of Parliament who voted negatively fear that the risks outweigh the potential benefits. Peter Garret from the British anti-abortion charity "Life" spoke out for people concerned about the possibility of scientists producing human clones. "Once you have opened the flood gates in the production of human cloned embryos, you are setting up the preconditions for full pregnancy cloning", as Mr. Garret stated.

Members of the European Parliament in Brussels have also been called on to consider stem cell research recently. They have voted in favour of setting up a temporary committee to examine human genetics and related technologies in modern medicine on December 13th, 2000. The 36 members will examine the ethical, legal, economic, and social issues related to new developments in the medical field.

The European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin, welcomed the move by the Members of the European Parliament, that follows the European Group on Ethics' (EGE) publication of an opinion about stem cell research in November 2000. Commissioner Busquin refrained from commenting on the opinion at the time, because he wanted to underline the independence of the group from the Commission, according to a Commission spokesperson.

Nonetheless, Mr. Busquin recently released the details of the Commission's response to the EGE's recommendations for future Community funding of research in this area. According to Commission officials, the Community will continue to exercise a precautionary approach to stem cell research, as it has been advised by the EGE. The Commissioner intends to call for ethical reviews of all EU-funded research, currently required as projects commence, to be reinforced throughout projects' lifetimes. He will subsequently invite the Member States to carry out a similar approach.

On 21 November 2000, Commissioner Busquin established a Biotechnology co-ordination committee. The European Commission is adamant that Europe must have a balanced debate on this controversial research, according to an EC official. It is particularly concerned that a total ban would result in the relocation of biotechnology companies to the United States. "We don't want to be dependent on the United States for technologies which are no longer controversial", the official added.

This means the next Community RTD framework programme will prioritise the application of plant, animal and human genetic research. In 2001, the EC's current Quality of Life and management of living resources programme will have a portion of its budget devoted to stem cell research with particular attention to ethical aspects. But as yet, no budget has been set. This will be revealed only after discussions between the Commission, the EGE, and the high level group on life sciences have taken place.

"The following framework programme should reflect the opinion of the European Parliament and the European Group on Ethics, and suspend all activities in therapeutic cloning in the Community programme until we have more information", according to the Commission, which is keeping a close eye on the debate in the United Kingdom. More information on the European Commission's point of view with regard to therapeutic cloning is available in the VMW October 2000 article EC President Prodi to prepare pan-European debate on cloning technology.


Leslie Versweyveld

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