In a move welcomed by German researchers, the National Ethics Council on Monday recommended easing legal restrictions intended to limit German scientists' ability to conduct stem cell research.
As Germany's top body when it comes to medical ethical issues, 14 of the National Ethics Council's 24 members recommended a series of amendments to a 2002 stem cell law banning the production of embryonic cells that scientists have said hinders them from conducting research on par with international institutes.
The council also said lawmakers should lift a ban placed on German scientists, both in and outside the country, on using cell lines created after Jan. 1, 2002. Instead of using a cut-off date, the council recommended establishing an independent panel to evaluate scientists' plans on a case-by-case basis.
"If the current rules remain, German science will be hopelessly sidelined," said Horst Dreier, speaking for the 14 members who favor changing the law, adding that the new law should explicitly state that new embryonic stem cell lines should come from widely available sources, not from manufacturers looking to profit from their production.
Expansion to permitted uses recommended
German scientists could be arrested for conducting some forms of stem cell research
The 2002 law also prevented Germans from using the 20 stem cell lines they were allowed to access for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes, limiting their work to basic research. Stem cell advocates say research in the field could eventually lead to treatments for diabetes and Parkinson's disease.
Stem cell research remains a sensitive issue in Germany due to country's Nazi past, and nine NEC members voted against recommending amendments to the current regulations, saying in a statement that it would "hollow out the stem cell law."
No therapies on the horizon
The minority group also said there was no reason to reevaluate the issue because therapies based on embryonic stem cell research are not likely to be developed in the foreseeable future. The group also criticized the decision to allow researchers to make use of embryonic stem cells in their research but not allow them to create the cells themselves.
Germany is divided on the issue of stem cell research
The German Bishop's Conference said no changes should be made to the current law.
"The demands of even important research interests cannot under any circumstances lead to human embryos being created," the Catholic group said in a statement. "We must not subordinate the protection of life to the freedom of research."
The German Research Society, however, welcomed the NEC's recommendations.
"This will provide a positive impulse for stem cell research in Germany," Society Vice-President Jörg Hinrich Hacker said.
Political decision in autumn
Scientists have said they are "miles away" from treatments based on stem cell research
Politicians said they would raise the issue of embryonic stem cell research in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, this autumn.
"We will suggest moving the cut-off date to May 1, 2007," Rene Röspel, the Social Democratic Party's research expert, told the Berliner Zeitung in an interview appearing Tuesday. "That is enough for the most versatile studies."
Whether Germany actually changes the law is certain to be subject to debate, as it was in 2002.
"The non-unanimous vote in the ethics council reflect the divides that this question also creates in the parliament," Ilse Aigner, the research policy expert for Germany's two Christian conservative parties, told Tuesday's Handelsblatt newspaper.