A compromise over European Union funding for stem-cell studies through the Sixth Framework research programme may be endorsed by heads of government at their two-day summit in Barcelona beginning today.
A resolution submitted to the summit by the European Parliament supports the research, but wants work on adult cells to be given priority over that on embryonic cells. This position strikes a balance between the general opposition to stem-cell research from Germany, Italy and Austria, and the more enthusiastic approach taken by the United Kingdom, where research includes work on embryonic cells. Much depends on the attitude taken by Spain, which holds the EU presidency.
Madrid is keen to see the Sixth Framework - which earmarks funds for stem-cell research - agreed under its presidency, but there is some suspicion about the commitment of Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose wife is a vocal opponent of the research. The proposed E16.2 billion (£10 billion) framework was referred to MEPs for a second reading this week. Final approval is not expected until June.
If ratified, the compromise would put pressure on the UK government to follow its regulatory support for such research with the necessary resources.
David Bowe, Labour environment spokesman in the parliament, believed Spain might support the compromise. "There isn't a majority to stop stem-cell research being funded, but there could be a majority to push for adult stem-cell research," he said.
This would not stop embryonic stem-cell research in the UK "but it would make it difficult to get funding from EU sources", he said.
Richard Gardner, Royal Society research professor at Oxford University and chairman of the Royal Society working group on stem cells, warned that if government funding was not forthcoming, the opportunity that the new supportive regulatory system offered could be squandered.
"Having made the decision to create a permissive atmosphere here, one does need to go full ahead with this," he said. "If the government sits on its hands, we would lose that advantage."
The medical and biotechnology and biological sciences research councils have submitted a joint bid for the funding of stem-cell work to be considered in the government's comprehensive spending review.
Opposition across the EU to embryonic stem-cell research is largely religious in origin and stronger in Catholic countries. In Italy, a group of non-Catholic scientists, including Nobel-winning biologist Rita Levi Montalcini, demanded a change in the law to allow research involving human embryos. Their petition says: "The prohibition has no scientific basis and would worsen the already difficult position of Italian research. To give an embryo similar status to an adult human being is unacceptable and is based only on myth and religion."
The Vatican-controlled Policlinic Gemelli teaching hospital in Rome has set up a "bank" of placentas and umbilical cords for the extraction of stem cells as an alternative to experimentation on embryos.
"There is no scientific proof that research on stem cells from embryos offers any advantage over that using stem cells from placentas or umbilical cords," a spokesman said Simon Fishel, director of the Centres for Assisted Reproduction, a UK network of fertility units, said that an EU decision to support only adult-cell research in the framework programme would be a blow to those who believed that embryo technology opened up the way to curing presently incurable diseases. Research on adult cells would be "of limited use and it's to be welcomed to that extent". But it was unlikely to affect Britain's leadership in this field, he said.
* An Australian company at the forefront of stem-cell research plans to continue its investigations into creating cloned embryos in Edinburgh if the Australian government proposes banning such work, writes Geoff Maslen.
Melbourne-based Stem Cell Sciences wants to use the embryos as a source of stem cells and has secured exclusive worldwide rights to the technique developed by Melbourne and Monash universities.
Peter Mountford, its chief executive, spent two years at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Genome Research in the early 1990s. He is one of more than 200 Australian scientists who are concerned that the federal government might try to ban the use of spare IVF human embryos for stem-cell research.
The federal cabinet is reported to have taken a decision in principle to oppose their use. Prime minister John Howard will announce their decision to state and territory premiers on April 5.