Zapatero backs stem-cell work

April 16, 2004

Spanish stem-cell research is likely to get more encouragement from the incoming socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, following the confused and sometimes hostile stance adopted by the outgoing conservative administration.

Last autumn, scientists were working in a legal vacuum. The government was reluctant to legalise research despite public and scientific pressure. But the issue was brought to a head when the Andalusian regional government passed a law permitting embryonic stem-cell research in the province, provoking a legal dispute with central government.

A law passed by the outgoing conservative government is now in place, and the new socialist government is supportive of work with embryonic stem cells. In mid-March, it signed an agreement with the Andalusian authorities to support their initiative. Francisco Vallejo, Andalusia's health minister, is confident that state funding will follow.

Meanwhile, the Barcelona Research Centre for Regenerative Medicine has been launched with €11 million (£26 million) from the ministry of health and Catalonia's regional government. Forty stem-cell researchers will work in a building in Barcelona's seafront biomedical research park, close to the Centre for Genomic Regulation, a basic research institute set up in 2000.

It will be headed by Juan Carlos Izpisúa Noa Belmonte, a development biologist from the University of California's Salk Institute. A cell bank will be established at the centre this summer, with research beginning early in 2005.

The centre is the brainchild of the new government and, in particular, acting health minister Ana Pastor, but Professor Izpisúa Noa Belmonte pushed for the centre to be built in Barcelona. Catalonia attracts 33 per cent of funding for applied biomedical research in Spain and has a track record as a pioneer in fertility treatment and organ transplants.

"There is a critical mass of biologists, sufficient raw material and the right environment to feed into this kind of research," said Jose Navas, director of hospitals at the Catalán Institute of Health.

Barcelona will plug into a developing network of stem-cell research that comprises an established team at Miguel Hernández University at Elche, led by Bernat Soria, the diabetes researcher, the new Andalucia project and a cell bank in Granada.

Jordi Camí, scientific director of the research park, said it was feasible for Spain to have several research institutes of this kind. "This is not so much a question of resources as ideas, plus we are at such a low level right now that talk of competition between us would be absurd," he said.

* In Ottawa, a Canadian senate committee has unanimously passed legislation that will allow the limited use of embryos in stem-cell research. The legislation permits researchers to use surplus embryos created during infertility treatments but bans the cloning of embryos.

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