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Researchers Sound Alarm

DW staff (jen)May 10, 2007

A group of top German scientists called for lawmakers to relax restrictions on stem-cell research, warning that Germany risks losing its status as a leader in research -- not to mention lucrative contracts.

German scientists worry they will miss the boat on stem-cell researchImage: dpa

The group of esteemed German researchers appeared before a parliamentary committee in Berlin on Wednesday including neurolobiologist Oliver Brüstle, the first German researcher to apply to import embryonic stem cells, in 2000.

Brüstle and others urged lawmakers to give them increased access to the stem cells -- cells at an early stage of development, which have the potential to turn into different types of tissue. But stem-cell research is controversial because the cells are culled from human embryos.

Der Neurobiologe Oliver Brüstle ist der Erste, der Stammzellen importieren darf
Neurobiologist Brüstle was one of the first to use stem cellsImage: AP

In 2001, the Bundestag passed a law that banned the production of stem cells from human embryos. They also ruled that research on human stem cells was only allowed if the cells were imported to Germany before Jan. 1, 2002.

Restrictive law

The law is considered to be one of the most restrictive in the world. Brüstle and 23 of his fellow scientists were in Berlin Wednesday to appear before the Bundestag committee debating the topic. They urged lawmakers to relax the 2002 cutoff date for imports.

“What we need is to get rid of the current cutoff date we have in Germany. So we need to have access to all existing cell lines which are available at an international level," Brüstle said.

The newer cell lines are of a better quality and they have no contamination in contrast to the old cell lines, Brüstle argued. And, he noted, "we need access to these cell lines to be competitive at an international level."

Danger of prosecution

The solution, according to Brüstle, is to use "supernumerary" embryos from fertility clinics -- which otherwise would be discarded -- for the creation of cell lines and the development of medical therapies.

Moreover, if they wouldn't allow this kind of research in Germany, Brüstle said legislators should at least limit the law's geographic reach to Germany alone. Currently, German scientists abroad run the risk of being criminally charged at home if they take part in international projects that use recent embryos. This should not be the case, the scientists argued.

Eine Labormaus
Lab mice are easy to come by, but stem cells are notImage: dpa

Many researchers accuse the German government of inhibiting scientific success. Some believe that stem-cell research holds the key to cures for genetic diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, and patents to cures for these diseases could be very lucrative.

Jörg Hinrich Hacker, the vice president of the German Research Association, noted that there were currently hardly any pre-2002 embryos available to do research on, and that those that were available were culled with outdated methods.

Theologist, lawmakers stand steady

But Frankfurt theology professor Hille Haker spoke out against changing the law. Nothing had changed in terms of ethics since 2002, he argued, and added that the state was justified in limiting scientific advancement in favor of moral protection of human embryos.

And German Minister for Research Annette Schavan argued that principles -- such as the sanctity of human life -- come before scientific milestones.

Specimen slide with embryonic stem cells, partial graphic
At the heart of the controversy is the sanctity of human lifeImage: AP

"It has been our firm conviction that human embryos should not be destroyed to get stem cells," she said. "And then it is totally clear that we need this cutoff date. Just because other countries have other perceptions, we cannot abandon our own German conviction."

In parliament, only the liberal FDP and the Left parties have stood behind the notion of changing the current law on stem-cell research.

Useful debate

The Green party refuses to alter the 2002 date, and the ruling SPD and CDU fractions have sent mixed signals.

While Research Minister Schavan has said the government would make no move to abandon the regulation altogether, a postponement of the current cutoff date nonetheless seems probable.

The debate over the cutoff date will show "whether or not we can find new ways to combine the protection of human life with the expectations of scientists," Schavan told ZDF television.