EU funding and the bio-ethics of stem-cell research

April 28, 2003

Brussels, 25 Apr 2003

In the context of an inter-institutional seminar on bio-ethics, MEPs, eminent scientists and representatives of Member States and accession countries debated the question of whether stem-cell research should be financed through EU funding.

Following on from the adoption on 10 April of the report by Peter LIESE (EPP-ED, D) on standards of quality and safety of human tissues and cells, the debate focused on when human life starts and the moral and legal status of the human embryo.

Commissioner Philip BUSQUIN pointed out, however, that the goal of the seminar was not to reach concrete conclusions about what was ethically viable, a domain for the Member States, but rather assist in the drawing up of a new Commission proposal for establishing guidelines for deciding on EU funding of research projects involving the use of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells.

Mr Apostolos Tschatazoupoulos, President-in-office of the Competitiveness Council and Minister for Development of Greece, recognised the differing legal and political positions of the Member States with regard to stem cell research. Carlos Westendorp y Cabeza (PES, E), Chair of the Industry Committee, recognised the importance of the seminar in helping to achieve an eventual compromise on many of the issues since all the institutions had been divided in the past on this subject.

Professor Linda NIELSEN, Vice-Chair of the European Group on Ethics, gave an overview of the legal provisions on human embryonic stem cells. She drew attention to both UNESCO and Council of Europe Conventions which ban both the use of stem cells for reproductive human cloning and the creation of human embryos for research purposes. She did however point out that more and more "supernumerary" or spare embryos were being produced by means of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) but subsequently not used for this purpose.

Professor Angelo VESCOVI spoke about the therapeutic potential of human brain stem cells. He pointed out that these cells do not grow well in culture, were difficult to regenerate and were located deep within the human brain thus making them problematic to procure. An alternative, he said was the use of human embryonic stem cells which were easier to multiply and use.

Citing the example of a mouse with multiple sclerosis, after injecting these types of cell, 40% of mice with this brain disorder recovered completely, he said. However, he was cautious about transferring this technology and research to humans.

Professor Austin SMITH, Head of the Institute for Stem Cell Research at University of Edinburgh, stated that stem cell research would not only lead to therapeutic uses in the fight against disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Huntingdon's or diabetes but also lead to the discovery of new drugs which pharmaceutical industries would exploit. He stated that the stem cells that had already been produced were insufficient and were produced under sub-optimal conditions and were not ideal for research purposes.

Overall, he welcomed the UK's regulatory approach and strict oversight on licensing. Professor Göran Hemerén from the Department of Medical Ethics at Lund University addressed some of the ethical questions on the moral and legal status of the human embryo, i.e. whether it enjoyed the full rights of a human being, some rights and therefore some protection or no protection or moral status at all. He also raised the issues of tolerance for the points of view of different Member States, human dignity, confidentiality, consent, traceability and anonymity.

In a lively debate that followed John PURVIS (EPP-ED, UK) was one speaker to favour the use of stem cells that would be otherwise discarded or frozen. On the other hand, Elizabeth MONTFORT (IND, F) defended the legal status of all human life including human embryos.

Michael GAHLER (EPP-ED, D) questioned why Germany should pay for stem cell research funding at EU level since it was banned at national level in Germany but allowed in some countries such as the UK. Carlos WESTENDORP Y CABEZA (PES, E) in his concluding remarks stated that if Europe was to lead in research, such compromises on funding were necessary, citing Austria and Luxembourg contributing to the EU's common fisheries policy despite being landlocked.

24.04.2003 Inter-Institutional Seminar on Bio-ethics

       Press enquiries:Richard Freedman - tel. (32-2) 28 41448e-mail: rfreedman@europarl.eu.int

European Parliament News Report 0425

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