Embryonic stem cell public research starts in Spain; therapeutic cloning expected to follow suit

July 25, 2005

Brussels, 22 Jul 2005

Barcelona's Research Regenerative Medicine Centre (CIMRB) has started to unfreeze the first embryos from a bank that will provide the cells necessary to generate embryonic stem cell lines and analyse their transformation in different tissues, namely cardiac and bone cells, in mice. The use of embryos in the research was approved by the parents of the embryos.

Presently six embryos have been unfrozen from a total of 140 available for research. The aim of the research is to see 'in vivo how inserting them in the mouse embryo they can transform and give rise to any tissue. This would be pioneering in the world,' explained CMB's director, Juan Carlos Izpisúa.

'The objective is that those embryonic cells, which have the ability to turn into any of the body's tissues, keep this potential.' What is wanted, he highlighted, is 'to understand and manage the mechanism that allows to culture indifferent stem cells'. If this is achieved, the stem cells will be made available to the rest of the authorised Spanish cell research groups. The extraction of these embryonic stem cells will be performed in Barcelona, while the Salk Institute in the US will carry out the study on the process of transformation in cardiac tissue in mice.

This is the fifth study of this kind since last October, when the Royal Decree, which allows research with stem cells extracted from embryos not used during fertilization processes, was approved. The cloning of human embryos for therapeutic use is nevertheless not allowed. Recently, however, Health Minister, Elena Salgado announced that legislation on therapeutic cloning could be in force as early as next year.

Therapeutic cloning involves creating embryos as a source of stem cells. The process is controversial because the embryos are later discarded. The UN general assembly has voted in favour of a non-binding statement calling for a total ban on human cloning. The European Union's Member States are divided between those opposed to therapeutic cloning and those in favour, such as the UK, Sweden and Belgium, and now Spain. Last May, researchers from the UK's Newcastle University succeeded in cloning Europe's first human embryo.

The EU position on these issues is to exclude EU funding for research that involves human reproductive cloning, the creation of human embryos for research (including by means of therapeutic cloning) and research that intends to change the genetic heritage of human beings. This in spite of the fact that there is no legal prohibition of therapeutic cloning at European level.

FP6 does allow EU funding of projects involving the derivation and use of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) derived from supernumerary embryos (i.e. embryos left over from in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) that are destined to be disposed off and for which parents give an explicit agreement). Such projects are examined on a case-by-case basis, and there are strong ethical safeguards in place.

As a Commission official pointed out recently in an interview with an Indian newspaper, the term therapeutic cloning could be misleading: 'Everybody is worried about the term 'cloning'. It would have been less controversial had it been simply called somatic cell nuclear transfer,' declared the official.

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