Brussels, 08 Apr 2003
The scientific, ethical and legal implications related to funding human embryonic stem cell and human embryo research under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) have come under scrutiny in a Commission report published on 7 April.
Initially, funding for stem cell research was foreseen under priority one, 'Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for human health.' However, in 2002 the Commission agreed not to fund research projects involving the use of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells (with the exception of projects involving banked or isolated human embryonic stem cells in culture) during the initial stage of FP6.
It was agreed that the Commission would draft a report on the subject with the aim of generating discussion and reaching a compromise before the end of 2003.
The report in question provides an overview of the different types of stem cells and the potential of stem cell therapy in offering viable treatment for those suffering from injuries and chronic diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's. The report also identifies the ethical issues surrounding human embryonic stem cell research.
Concerning the moral acceptability of the research, the report refers to opinion 15 of the European group on ethics in sciences and new technologies (EGE), which states that 'the creation of embryos for the sole purpose of research raises serious concerns since it represents a further step in the instrumentalisation of human life.'
Yet, it goes on to say that 'there is no argument for excluding funding of this kind of research from the Framework Programme of research of the European Union if it complies with ethical and legal requirements as defined in this programme.'
According to European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, the report is not about establishing EU legislation on ethical questions. 'Regulating on ethical matters is the competence of Member States. In Europe, we have a legitimate diversity of rules and ethical frameworks in the field of human embryonic stem cell research,' he said.
To illustrate such diversity in European opinion, the report outlines the current positions taken by EU Member States regarding the regulation of human embryonic stem cell research. Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom have passed legislation allowing for the procurement, under certain conditions, of human embryonic stem cells from spare embryos. However, no specific legislation regarding such activities has been agreed upon in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg or Portugal.
Furthermore, although taking human embryonic stem cells from spare embryos has been prohibited in Germany, the import and use of human embryonic stem cell lines can be used under certain conditions.
According to Mr Busquin, it is important not to ignore the wide spectrum of national rules and values when deciding whether or how stem cell research can be incorporated into a European research framework. The main challenge 'is to explore, through dialogue, how we can foster strong collaboration in a European Research Area and promote cutting-edge research for the benefit of citizens,' he added.
The report is expected to form the basis for discussions on the subject of funding stem cell research at an inter-institutional seminar on 24 April.
Following the seminar, the Commission will submit a proposal to establish further guidelines for deciding whether or not Community funding should be used to support research projects in the field. The legislative procedure should be completed by December 2003 at the latest. To see the report, please click here