European Commission makes the case for EU funded embryonic stem cell research

Brussels 10 July 2003The European Commission has announced details of its proposal to allow EU funding for embryonic stem cell research. Under the plans, stem cells used in EU research projects must come from spare embryos created for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) purposes, and that were frozen before the adoption of the Sixth Framework Programme. The European Union will not fund such research in Member States where it is illegal.

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Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin outlined the main points of the proposal at a press conference in Brussels on 9 July, 2003. He acknowledged the controversial nature of the issue, and said that a number of questions remained unanswered. But he suggested that the potential for curing diseases, such as Alzheimer's, and the principle of freedom of research, outweighed such concerns.

"The decision to fund human embryonic stem cell research from the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) was already taken by Council and Parliament last year. By funding this research and by setting strict ethical rules for such funding, the EU contributes in a responsible way to advancing this science for the benefit of patients across the world, while at the same time ensuring that it takes place within a clear ethical framework, according to Mr. Busquin.

The Commissioner stressed that the proposal was not an attempt to set guidelines for Member State policies towards embryonic stem cell research, and neither did it aim to provide universal ethical principles. He said that the framework programme would continue to respect national rules and that no funding would be made available for such research in countries where these activities are forbidden.

However, the German Member of the European Parliament, Peter Liese, an outspoken opponent of embryonic stem cell research, rejected this argument: "For the Commission to say that it will not fund such research in a country where it is forbidden is no help at all. To do so would be illegal. This is a non-statement."

Mr. Liese would prefer to see "the limited resources available under FP6 spent on areas of research where there is less of an ethical split among Member States". He also argued that sufficient numbers of stem cell lines are already freely available to European researchers, and that creating new lines was therefore unnecessary.

The Commission refutes such claims, arguing that by carrying out such research at EU level, and by creating a European registry of stem cells, unnecessary duplication of research activities will be avoided which, in the long run, will reduce the number of embryos used for the derivation of stem cells.

Other ethical guidelines proposed by the Commission include an initiative aimed at neutralising the argument that EU funding for such research would create a financial incentive to produce more embryos than are needed for IVF treatment. The Commission proposes that only spare, or supernumerary, embryos created before 27 June 2002, the date of adoption of FP6, can be used.

Furthermore, Mr. Busquin stressed that the Commission would follow the recommendations of the European Group on Ethics, which state that the informed consent of the donors of the embryos must be sought, that donors must not gain financially, and that those applying to carry out research on embryonic stem cells must seek ethical advice and approval for their projects.

After publication of the full text of the proposals, the Commission will seek their approval in a qualified majority vote by the Member States, after consultation with the European Parliament. An indication of the scale of that task could be seen in the German government's response to the announcement. The State Secretary from the Ministry of Education and Research, Wolf Michael Catenhusen, stated: "We hope to be able to convince our partners in the EU of our position, and to find a solution that respects the ethical convictions of all Member States."

"We will carry out negotiations on the basis of the German legal position", concluded Mr. Catenhusen. The use of human embryos as sources of stem cells is banned in Germany. To find out more about stem cells, please consult the Web site of the European Commission.


Leslie Versweyveld

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