German research council calls for standardisation and co-operation in embryonic stem cell research

Bonn 08 May 2001The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the central public funding organisation for academic research in Germany, has called for a graduated scheme for standardisation of and international co-operation in the research on "redundant" embryos under strict conditions. Conscious of the problems of producing human life for research, the DFG is however convinced that their recommendations are fair to both the German constitution and sense of justice and on the other hand respects scientific research and the justifiable interests of the ill.

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The participation of German scientists in human stem cell research is conceivable if two measures are taken, according to the DFG. First, the establishment of international institutional co-operation and second, the discussion by policy makers of German participation in the extraction of embryonic stem cells.

The DFG recommends the development of institutional international co-operation, supported by the DFG, whose task it would be to formulate requests for the necessary cell lines, standardise them, and then take responsibility for their establishment into scientific practice. If this option were to be pursued, German scientists would be able to participate in international research on embryonic stem cells without changes to the current law protecting embryos, according to the DFG.

If required, the DFG equally recommends that policy makers enter into discussions on allowing German scientists the opportunity to work actively on the extraction of human embryonic stem cell lines. Such a prospect would only apply however to embryos that had been produced for artificial insemination, but which can no longer be used for this purpose. The opinion states however that the use of tissue specific adult stem cells should take priority as an alternative to human embryonic stem cells.

An independent commission at federal level should be set up in order to deal with ethical issues concerning the extraction of embryonic stem cells and related research, as stated by the DFG. The DFG notes that since its last report in March 1999, many new developments have occurred in this area, which cannot be ignored by scientists or potential patients. The organisation continues to reject, however, the production of embryos solely for research purposes. The paper specifies the case of Dolly the sheep as an example of this sort of research.

Reproductive and therapeutic cloning is also considered by the DFG to be neither scientifically justifiable nor ethically responsible. This is a view that is currently being challenged in Italy by Luca Coscioni, a parliamentary candidate suffering from amiotrophic lateral sclerosis. Mr. Coscioni is running for parliament with the hope of reversing Italy's ban on stem cell research. He argues that a cure may be possible if scientists are allowed to experiment on embryos left over from assisted fertility treatment, which are destined for destruction.

Meanwhile, the first bill to ban human cloning in America has recently been introduced to congress. If approved, the bill would make it a federal crime to clone a human or import human clones to the country. Human cloning has already been banned in five US states. In the United Kingdom as well, new legislation will comprehensively ban all forms of human cloning. More news on therapeutic cloning is to be found in the VMW January 2001 article Stem cell research approved by British Parliament while European colleagues prefer to wait and see.


Leslie Versweyveld

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