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Europe

EU To Fund Stem Cell Research By 2004?

The European Commission could start funding stem cell research by January after EU research ministers failed to reach a compromise on the matter on Wednesday. German government officials oppose this.

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A slide with embryonic stem cells

EU funding could start as early as January, as a moratorium expires at the end of the year. Without a consensus in the EU council of ministers, individual funding requests will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of member states. "The Commission will try to treat this issue wisely," Philippe Busquin, the EU commissioner for research, said after Wednesday’s meeting.

The German government immediately criticized possible EU funding for stem cell research. "We expect that the EU Commission will not end the moratorium and simply return to business as usual," a German official told AP.

Should funding commence, German tax payers would indirectly fund research that’s outlawed in their own country. Germany pushed for a moratorium pending the establishment of ethical guidelines. EU research funds total €2.2 billion ($2.6 billion), around €40 million of which could go towards scientists working with stem cells.

Restrictions on research in Germany

German law only allows work on imported embryonic stem cells that have been harvested before Jan. 2002. The cut-off date is meant to prevent the production of new embryos solely for the purpose of stem cell research.

Research on embryonic stem cells is also only allowed under German law if no alternative exists, such as research animal stem cells or stem cells taken from adults.

Because stem cells can develop into many different types of cells, they are unlike most other cells. This makes them a valuable source of hard-to-get cells for transplants. Proponents see the research as a way to fight diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases in the future.

EU Commission more liberal

EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin had planned more liberal guidelines to fund stem cell research and has proposed a June 2002 cut-off-date for embryonic cells that can be used.

Just two weeks ago, the European Parliament had voted to fund research on embryonic stem cells no more than 14 days old or those which were left over from fertility treatments. With support from Austria, Italy and Portugal, Germany managed to avoid a vote in favor of the Commission’s proposal last week.

Will EU ministers continue discussions?

German government officials said they expected negotiations on the issue to continue in 2004, when Ireland takes over the rotating EU presidency. But Busquin countered that the Irish would not revive the topic. "It’s over," the commissioner, who is from Belgium, said.

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