Some scientists and politicians believe the 2002 law restricting the use of stem cells in German research is no longer in sync with modern medicine. Opponents to a change in the law fear abuse of human embryos.
Stem cell research grabs the spotlight again
The German Research Foundation, which defines itself as a funding organization that promotes public scientific research, in 2007 called for a loosening of restrictions of Germany's stem cell law, which allows scientists to only work with imported cells created before the national Stem Cell Act was adopted in 2002.
Since the request for altering the law, German politicians from all parties have been defining their various stances on the issue.
From politicians who completely oppose the use of human embryonic stem cells to others who want German scientists to have unfettered access to these basic building blocks of life, divisions haven't been drawn according to party affiliation.
Multi-celled human embryo from a fertility clinic
The largest group of parliamentarians, which encompasses both Social and Christian Democrats, including German Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, suggest a one-time change to the Jan. 1, 2002 restriction. The group proposes that stem lines from embryos created before 2007 should be allowed to be imported into Germany.
Rene Roespel, a Social Democrat and co-initiator of the proposal, said that the number of stem cell lines available to German scientists would then increase from 40 to 500.
Behind the scientific curve
Emphasizing the chances stem cell research offers to combat disease, German scientists have said their research is impaired by the current law and have called on politicians to ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.
"We are only able to import embryonic cells created before Jan. 1, 2002, which makes them quite old and we have to assume that many of them are now genetically damaged or no longer stable," said Juergen Hescheler, a stem cell expert at the University of Cologne.
German scientists say they are behind the research curve due to restrictive laws
He said that many German scientists are hoping for a change in the law to allow them to import newer cell lines of better quality.
"Now, scientists are significantly more careful about preparing and cultivating human embryonic cells, so it is internationally accepted that the newer cell lines are much better," he said.
In addition to the questionable quality of pre-2002 imported cells, Joerg Hacker, vice-president of the German Research Foundation, said there was another reason for the call in 2007 for a law reform.
"There is a risk of punishment of German scientists who work on international projects using stem cells lines from after 2002," he explained.
Currently, scientists aren't allowed to participate in international research projects that use post-2002 embryonic cells. If they do, they run the risk of criminal prosecution at home.
Stem cell versatility vs. ethical concerns
Embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of cell, which prompts scientists to believe they offer strong potential for finding cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and heart maladies.
Formerly, the cells could only be extracted by destroying human embryos, which opponents say is equivalent to taking a human life. Germany's history with Nazi medical experiments on humans has also contributed to the national sensitivity with the issue.
However, only stem cell lines from "additional" embryos which are not implanted but develop during in vitro fertility treatments come into question under the proposal; importing lines from embryos generated exclusively for stem cell research remains forbidden.
Stem cells in a petri dish
But even the definition of an embryo itself is a gray area.
"There is a clear distinction between pre-embryos and their implantation into the uterus," said Hescheler. "These [embryonic cells] are human material which should be respected, but I do not see them as true embryos with functions and brain or organ development."
He added that "real [human] life begins after the acceptance of them by mothers following implantation."
Ethics mediators also divided
In an opinion piece published in 2007 by Germany's National Ethics Council, Hermann Barth argued that the 2002 Stem Cell Law "resulted from a compromise in which both the advocates of comprehensive embryo protection and those in favor of a system oriented towards the freedom of research set aside their own, more far-reaching convictions."
Within certain conditions, Barth wrote, "this compromise would best be served by opening the door to stem cell research a little wider by means of a prudent amendment of the Stem Cell Law."
The setting of a later cut-off date, albeit in the past, is the appropriate means: it is adequate, takes account of the normative principles of the Embryo Protection Law and conforms to the spirit of the 2002 compromise," he continued.
Researching stem cells is miles away from applying them in treatments, scientists say
Other members of the Ethics Council wrote last year that "a change in the Jan. 1, 2002 cut-off date [stipulated by the Stem Cell Law] would essentially mean to endorse the destruction of embryos abroad and to profit from procedures which are banned [in Germany] by the Embryo Protection Law."
A 1990 Embryo Protection Law prohibits any utilization of embryos that does not serve their preservation. A logical consequence, those members argued, would then have to include a reevaluation of Germany's Embryo Protection Law.
"In this case, it would have to be evaluated whether or not it would not be more consistent to use embryos ... and fertilized eggs, which can no longer be employed for reproduction purposes for research, rather than importing ... cells from abroad," council members wrote.
But until such a debate takes place "it is the import law which is currently under consideration and debate," Hacker stressed.
A shift in the debate
Ironically, advances in science may help to take the heat off the ethical debate. Last November, teams of US and Japanese researchers said they had reprogrammed human skin cells to function like embryonic stem cells.
On the surface, this could mean that scientists would no longer have to rely on embryonic stem cells.
But, cautioned Hacker, "these new, reprogrammed cells still have to be compared with real embryonic stem cell lines to see if they function they same way."
Shortly after the November announcement of the scientific breakthrough, the German government announced it would double its funding for stem cell research from 5 million euros ($7.4 million) to just under 10 million euros, albeit only for adult stem cells.