Europe is speeding up stem-cell research
A top US scientist confirms plans to go to Britain, where researchers can use, create, and clone embryos.
When President Bush seeks Pope John Paul II's advice on Sunday on whether he should permit government funding of stem-cell research, Mr. Bush probably knows what he will hear. Roman Catholic authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have strongly opposed the idea.Skip to next paragraph
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But if he should raise the issue with fellow world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, this weekend, they will give him a very different message.
European nations, in the midst of intense debate, are liberalizing their laws to allow, and even encourage, stem-cell research using human embryos so long as scientists abide by strict public controls of their work.
Stem cells can develop into specific cells such as skin cells, heart cells, and nerve cells. Scientists hope to use them one day to grow new human tissue to treat disorders including diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries. While stem cells are present in adults, scientists say the most versatile ones come from embryos a few days old.
The process of isolating embryonic stem cells results in the destruction of the embryo, however. Some opponents of the research say this amounts to taking a human life.
Unlike the United States - where publicly funded researchers are subject to government controls, but privately financed scientists can do pretty much what they like - European restrictions on research apply to everyone. And, although different countries have taken different approaches, they are united in their anxiety not to let scientists get ahead of public opinion.
The British approach
Britain is in the vanguard of European stem-cell research. A 1990 law allows scientists to use, create, and even clone embryos for therapeutic use.
Every research project, though, must be approved by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which allows work only to combat infertility, congenital disease, and serious illness.
All embryos must be destroyed before they are 14 days old, when an embryonic nervous system appears in the form of what scientists call a "primitive streak."
The vast majority of such embryos come from so-called "surplus" stock at fertility clinics, which would normally be discarded. Although the law allows the creation of embryos through the fertilization of an egg with sperm, only 120 of the 50,000 embryos used for research over the past 11 years were artificially created, according to Hugh Whittall, deputy head of the HFEA.
"Not many women want to donate their eggs for research, so the material is not easy to get," he says.
And although British law also allows the cloning of embryos (so that the stem cells should be perfectly compatible with the donor's tissue), the authority has not yet issued any licenses to do so and has ruled out any reproductive cloning that would result in a human baby.
"Our framework has worked rather well," says Mr. Whittall. "The legislation is essentially permissive, but research happens in a controlled environment."
Other European countries, racing to bring their laws into line with recent breakthroughs in stem-cell research, are studying the British model. France, for example, where Parliament is currently revising the national bioethics law, is expected to adopt the broad outlines of the British pattern, though the government recently backed away from plans to permit the creation of embryos for research in the face of opposition from President Jacques Chirac.
Germany calls for moratorium
Nowhere has the public debate been as impassioned as in Germany, where Nazi experiments with eugenics have left people deeply sensitive about tinkering with nature, and where research on embryos is forbidden.
News that German scientists were working with imported stem cells caused an outcry two weeks ago, prompting the government to call for a voluntary moratorium on all such research until a newly formed National Ethics Council has studied the question and reported to parliament.