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German Scientists Go Abroad to Pursue Stem Cell Research

Diana FongJuly 11, 2006

German laws regarding embryonic stem cells are among the most restrictive in the world. That has led to a brain drain to other countries, where the use of discarded embryos from fertility clinics is not prohibited.

German stem cell researchers are leaving the country to pursue their workImage: dpa

Does a blastocyst -- a ball of cells from a fertilized egg that has the potential to become a human being -- possess certain legal rights? Do infertile couples, if they can afford it, have the right to bear their own biological child through in-vitro fertilization?

According to German law, the answer is yes to both questions, and therein lies an inherent contradiction.

Embryonic stem cell lines, which are cultivated from blastocysts and used for medical research worldwide, come from fertility clinics, which routinely create and destroy them in a testtube. In the process of treating infertility, many more blastocysts are produced than can be implanted in the womb, so that the excess is eventually discarded.

Forschen in Europa - Zellen
Embryonic cells are capable of developing into any type of body cell

Using discarded embryos

If blastocysts are being dumped into the refuse anyway, so the logic goes, why not allow medical science to benefit from them? Research scientists could then produce embryonic stem cell lines that apparently hold great promise in treating debilitating nerve and brain disorders, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, not to mention juvenile diabetes, strokes, heart disease, and even infertility.

Unlike adult stem cells taken from the bone marrow, embryonic cells are unique in their ability to differentiate and develop into any type of regenerative body tissue.

Current law in Germany bans the production of stem cell lines from blastocysts outright. Scientists are only allowed access to imported lines, and even then, only those that pre-date 2002, which were cultivated using mouse feeder cells that carry the risk of viruses being transmitted to humans.

Furthermore, the extra-territorial reach of the law means that German scientists could face criminal prosecution from collaborating with international partners on projects involving newer lines of embryonic stem cells.

Push to liberalize embryonic stem cell law

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), a foundation that promotes scientific research, is pushing for a change in the law that would put Germany in line with the more liberal policies of other European countries.

"We want to be able to use those superfluous eggs that are being thrown out. Instead we are stuck with these old, used contaminated stem cell lines that are more than four years old, and not terribly useful. It's like using old material to build a new house", said Eva-Maria Streier, a spokeswoman for DFG, who pointed out that the German law is more restrictive than the one in the United States, where human stem cell research is also a political hot potato.

In the US though, in spite of opposition from the Christian right, the controversy generally applies to the use of federal funds to support research. Whereas in Germany, the issue of embryonic stem cell research has resulted in some strange bedfellows. Leftist Greens and conservative Christian Democrats are parties at two ends of the political spectrum but both vehemently opposed to liberalizing the law.

Scientists pursue research abroad

The impact of such restrictions is that many German scientists intent on pursuing human stem cell research are going abroad.

"Young people are leaving to pursue careers in England, Sweden, even China, India, Singapore and the U.S. Only 15 years ago we were the forerunners in this field, and now other countries are realizing the fruits of our labor," lamented Jürgen Hescheler, a leading stem cell biologist at the University of Cologne who is a strong proponent of a unified Europe-wide law that strikes a balance between respecting human dignity and giving scientists enough latitude to pursue clinical studies.

Human applications of research done on miceImage: AP

Stem-cell biologists such as Karim Nayernia, an Iranian-born German, who has done pioneering work on producing sperm in infertile mice from a blastocyst, is now pursuing research at Newcastle University in England instead.

"The vast amount of paperwork and approvals needed to comply with German regulations was overwhelming. Furthermore some of the restrictive laws made no sense", he said.

"It is a double standard to allow fertility clinics to destroy embryos in the process of their work, but not to permit the doomed blastocysts to be used for research purposes. What kind of a moral standard is that"? asked Nayernia.