Brussels, 12 Nov 2003
The inter-institutional debate on whether the EU should fund embryonic stem cell research, and if so under which conditions, looks unlikely to be resolved swiftly, according to key figures close to the discussions.
A roundtable debate on the question took place in Brussels on 11 November, bringing together EU policy makers at the centre of the discussions, as well as leading stem cell researchers who presented the latest scientific perspectives.
On the basis of preliminary discussions at permanent representative level in the Council, a spokesperson for the Italian Presidency said: 'Frankly, it is not easy to foresee a compromise - the question is very black and white, for and against.'
The spokesperson revealed that the majority of Member States were opposed to the Commission's proposals for EU stem cell research funding, but not all for the same reasons. While some representations believe that research using human embryos should not receive EU funding under any circumstances, others feel that the conditions laid down by the Commission are too restrictive.
Due to the importance of the issue, however, the Italian Presidency will make every effort to find a widely acceptable compromise as quickly as possible, the spokesperson concluded.
One person who believes the Commission proposal has struck the right balance is Octavi Quintana Trias, Director of the health directorate at DG Research. According to Mr Quintana Trias, the fact that the proposal is regarded as too liberal by some and too restrictive by others shows that it effectively occupies the middle ground.
To those who believe the proposal should be more restrictive, Mr Quintana Trias pointed out that it contains the strictest ethical guidelines of any legislation currently in force. At the same time, he warned that some of the amendments proposed by Parliament's industry, external trade, research and energy (ITRE) committee are considered too liberal by the Commission.
The event's host, German Christian Democrat MEP Peter Liese, said that he had met too many people involved in the debate who believe they know all the facts about stem cell research. He said that MEPs have a duty to remain open minded and to listen to all the available facts. In that spirit, he invited some of Europe's leading stem cell scientists to present their latest research.
Dr Thorsten Trapp from the University of Düsseldorf explained the findings of his recent investigations into the effectiveness of using embryonic stem cells to treat brain damage caused by strokes. Using stem cells from mouse embryos on brain damaged rats, Dr Trapp's team found that the stem cells were able to migrate to the affected area and repair much of the damage.
When using embryonic mouse stem cells on mice with the same condition, the team expected to see even more positive results, but found that instead of repairing the damaged brain tissue, the stem cells quickly resulted in tumours throughout the brain. This risk of tumourigenesis must be addressed, said Dr Trapp, as it had worrying implications for the use of human embryonic stem cells on human patients.
Finally, Dr Marie Louise Labat, from the French national centre for scientific research (CNRS), argued that currently, stem cells procured from adults are the only real candidates for transplantation into other patients, as these are the only types of stem cells that our bodies know how to control.