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Stem-Cell Research

DW staff (jen)May 21, 2008

Britain's decision to legalize hybrid animal-human embryos for medical research was widely met with negative reactions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

In this photo a single cell is removed from a human embryo to be used in generating embryonic stem cells for scientific research.
Germany recently loosened its own stem-cell regulationsImage: AP

On Monday, May 19, British lawmakers voted to legalize the creation of animal-human embryos for medical research. Critics said the move was unethical, but supporters cited the need to forge ahead in stem-cell research by any means necessary.

After a very heated debate, Britain's lower house of parliament voted on the Human Embryology and Fertilization Bill, which could well be the biggest shake-up of laws affecting sensitive areas like stem cell research and abortion in the past two decades.

In the future, scientists in Britain will be allowed to combine human DNA with animal egg cells. But the law says the resulting "chimera" embryos must destroyed within 14 days, and cannot be implanted.

Schavan criticizes "highly dubious" move

A recent undated photo, released 2 April 2008 by England's Newcastle University of Lyle Armstrong who leads the team of researchers at the University's Stem Cell Institute, that has conducted research that could lead to the development of therapies for conditions such as Parkinson's Disease and strokes.
Lyle Armstrong led the team of researchers who created the chimerasImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The amendment that would have outlawed the creation of hybrid embryos was defeated by 336 to 176 votes. The proponents of the chimera law said it would help ensure a more plentiful supply of stem cells for use in research into treating conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, because it doesn't require female human embryos.

Annette Schavan, Germany's minister of education and research, sharply criticized the UK decision, calling it "wrong and highly ethically dubious." A boundary has been crossed, she said Wednesday in Berlin.

The German Medical Association sharply criticized the move, and many researchers are skeptical about the utility of such chimeras. Schavan warned that the EU needed to be careful to see that no money was going to chimera-based research, and said organizations need to be carful and to make sure the rules are being followed.

In Germany, which has some of the strictest rules on stem-cell use in all of Europe, "creating chimeras is against the law, and that will remain the case," said a spokesman for the Education and Research Ministry.

Doubts thrown on usefulness of chimera tests

Frank Ulrich Montgomery, the vice-president of the German Medical Association, spoke out immediately against the UK decision.

"We consider this decision to be a serious mistake," he told AP news service. "Just the fact that viable embryos are to be destroyed shows that they are developing a completely different relationship to growing life."

A sample of embrionic stem cells is taken out of liquid nitrogen in a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, in this Aug. 29, 2002 file photo.
Embrionic stem cells are kept in liquid nitrogenImage: AP

He added that the expectations that these experiments will lead to therapeutic results are deceptive. Stem-cell research has not led to a slew of expected breakthroughs, he pointed out. Research done adult stem cells, which are ethically unobjectionable, has accounted for more success, he said.

Big 'no' from the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church also voiced loud opposition to the British lawmakers' move. German Catholic theologian Johannes Reiter told Radio Vatican that the creation of chimeras was a breach of human dignity.

Berlin stem-cell researcher James Adjaye told Germany's Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that when it comes to chimeras, it is too hard to answer the question: "What part of (the cell culture) is then from the embryo, and what part from the animal?"

"Savior siblings" also approved

But Adjaye did stand behind one decision the British lawmakers made: legalizing "savior siblings," children created as a genetic match for a sick brother or sister so that their genetic material can be used to treat them.

Graphic of an embryonic stem cell
An embryonic stem cellImage: AP

"It is like an organ donation from within the family," Adjaye said.

For his part, the German Medical Association's Montgomery took issue with the "savior sibling" decision as well.

"We consider it unethical to use a person for spare parts," he told news organizations.

On Tuesday in Brussels, EU parliamentarian Peter Liese, who heads a working group on bioethics, said the British move on chimeras was "scientifically irrational and irresponsible."

But Juergen Hescheler, the head of the German Stem Cell Research Association, approved of the decision, telling Spiegel Online, "We must follow every road in the name of research freedom."