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Europe

Stem Cell Research Faces German Test

The French National Assembly gave stem cell scientists the green light to begin importing embryos. Next week Germany decides whether to do the same.

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A new decision in France's parliament is one of many to come regarding human embryo research in Europe

France’s parliament approved a bill allowing researchers to import human embryos from which they could harvest stem cells. Researchers in Europe and the United States believe stem cells will be able to generate virtually every tissue in the body, and could be used to cure degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or heart disease.

France’s parliamentary vote follows an approval given to British researchers by the House of Lords last November. Now, researchers and some government officials in Germany are eager to get things moving as well.

Germany’s ethics council gives the green light

A national ethics council set up by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder gave conditioned approval in November to importing embryos for stem cell research. Schröder, eager to boost his country’s bio-tech sector and rid Germany of a 1990 ban on stem cell research, set up the council last May.

Since then, international scientists have been touting the possibilities afforded by embryonic stem cells. United States-based researchers announced in November that they were able to convert stem cells into brain cells. The research was a significant first step towards treating various brain diseases.

Leaps made in research provoke outcry

Just a few days before that announcement, researchers announced they had cloned the first embryo. The experiment touched off debates across Europe and America on the ethics of their project. Therapeutic Cloning, as the process is called, means that the embryos will be discarded after the stem cells are harvested, something that horrifies ethicists and scientists alike.

American President George W. Bush said that US scientists would only be allowed to use existing stem cell lines from their research. The rule would prevent scientists from engaging in therapeutic cloning and fertility clinics from selling embryos commercially.

France’s parliament agreed with that rule and added that it would allow cells not used to artificially inseminate women to be made available for research.

Germany up next

How far Germany’s parliament will go next week will remain to be seen. The ethics council recommended the import of stem cells within a strict three-year time period. The cells should be made available both publicly and privately funded research projects and couples who contributed the embryos should first give their permission and not be compensated financially.

German Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn has said she is confident parliament will approve the import of stem cells. But there continues to be growing opposition, including from within Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s own ranks.

German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung this week that she was against the import of stem cells, putting her at odds with her boss. Däubler-Gemlin said that she had serious ethical reservations about the practice and doubted the scientific arguments put forth in defense of stem cell research.

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