MEPs build pressure against embryonic stem cell research
By Olivier Mirguet in Strasbourg and Marie-Martine Buckens in Brussels | Wednesday 12 September 2012
Four members of the European Parliament announced, on 12 September in Strasbourg, that they planned to challenge the legality of the next research framework programme, Horizon 2020, if it includes EU funding for research on human embryos and embryonic stem cells.
Peter Liese (EPP, Germany), Miroslav Mikolasik (EPP, Slovakia), Gerald Häfner (Greens-EFA, Germany) and Konrad Szymanski (ECR, Poland) are preparing to table, in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) amendments to the European Commission’s proposal of 30 November 2011 on Horizon 2020.
“We reject harmonisation of national regulations on this sensitive issue in Europe,” said Liese. The MEPs intend to raise two key questions related to the patentability of research results on human stem cells and the funding of projects under way. “Life cannot be taken away to be marketed,” according to Klaus Gärditz, law professor at Bonn University in Germany. “In a 2011 judgement, the EU Court of Justice held that the procedure for collecting embryonic stem cells is incompatible with human dignity,” continued Gärditz. “This human dignity, defined in Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, is a primary right. Research on embryonic stem cells must therefore be excluded by substantive law. If certain prohibited areas are subsidised, the entire framework programme is in danger. The risk to European research is huge.”
“Embryonic stem cell research is not as conclusive as it had been hoped”, noted Marie-Jo Thiel, a member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE). “I am hearing that nine of every ten medical research projects are not being funded. Why finance this extremely controversial area? It is not reasonable to endanger an €80 billion framework programme,” notes Liese. For Mikolasik, researchers should focus on adult stem cells, “the effects of which are concrete, unlike research on embryos, which has been halted in the United States because labs have concluded that it cannot lead to treatment for a single disease”.
BLANPAIN OPPOSED TO HARMONISATION
Should the EU finance research on embryonic stem cells? For Professor Cédric Blanpain, researcher at Université Libre de Bruxelles and 2012 winner of the ISSCR Prize awarded by the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the answer is ‘yes’. “Views differ from one member state to the next,” he acknowledged. So what should be done at EU level? The answer is simple: “We have to accept different legislations, otherwise the most restrictive country prevails”. In short, “we should not harmonise”. Blanpain blasted the EU Court of Justice ruling in the case of Greenpeace versus Brüstle. The court confirms in that judgement that biotechnology inventions that implement human embryonic stem cells cannot be patented. “Without the protection of intellectual property, a whole area of European research will be kept from developing further and investors will turn to the United States,” added the Belgian researcher.
Blanpain, together with other prestigious international stem cell researchers, has published an appeal in the journal
Nature for liberalisation of research in this area. Meanwhile, the powerful Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE), consulted regularly by the European Commission on all ethical matters, has kept up pressure to exclude embryonic stem cell research from EU-funded R&D programmes. Its latest battle has been to make sure the future Horizon 2020 framework programme includes all the commitments made by the Commission for the seventh framework programme (FP7), which will end in 2013. That request was relayed by the four MEPs, on 12 September in Strasbourg.
In 2010, the EU funded 38 stem cell projects under the FP7 for a total investment of €239 million. The bulk of the funding went to research on regenerative medicine. Of these projects, 12 involved the use of human embryos. The Commission nevertheless points out that European programmes do not finance the production of new human embryonic stem cell lines. Member states working in this area but whose laws prohibit the production of such lines – the case of Germany, for instance – import lines from member states with more lax legislation, such as Belgium, the United Kingdom or Sweden.
Several countries authorise researchers to work on stem cells extracted from supernumerary human embryos (surplus embryos resulting from in vitro fertilisation). This is the case in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Greece, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and, under certain conditions, in France. In the opposite camp, Germany and Italy prohibit the procurement of stem cells from human embryos, while Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have no specific legislation in this area.
“We reject harmonisation of national regulations on this sensitive issue in Europe,” said Liese