BioWorld International Correspondent
July 26, 2006
BRUSSELS, Belgium – Just days after the Bush veto on further funding for embryonic stem cell research, researchers have avoided the same fate in Europe – but only by a hairsbreadth. European Union science ministers agreed by a slender margin on July 21 to continue funding such research beginning in 2007, subject to tight national controls. Emboldened by the U.S. example, Germany mounted a vigorous last-minute campaign to derail EU plans for a seven-year research funding program, now in the final stages of negotiation, on the grounds that it offered “financial incentives to kill embryos.” At a specially convened meeting of the EU Council in Brussels, German science minister Annette Schavan insisted: “We must achieve an appropriate balance of interests, and conserve broad support for human life from its conception.” She claimed the current plans do not impose sufficient standards, and she proposed the incorporation in the EU research program of an explicit ban on funding of embryo research. The German campaign, which had gathered pace since the Bush announcement of July 19, won support from Austria – “This destruction of human embryos is not something we can support” – Poland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia. But in a long and unusually lively Council meeting, a majority of member states indicated their support for the research program and its backing for embryonic stem cell research. The Swedish minister described stem cells as “one of the most important possibilities we have for overcoming painful and disabling diseases.” The Portuguese minister said: “One country’s sensitivities must never be allowed to stand in the way of collaboration among other member states.” One by one, support for the research program was declared by Hungary, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Spain – “Embryo stem cell research is an important scientific adventure, for Spain and the whole of Europe” – the UK – “It would be ethically unacceptable to withhold these advantages from patients” – Cyprus, Denmark, the Netherlands, France – “We cannot replace embryonic stem cell work with adult stem cell work” – Estonia, Latvia and Ireland. Crucially, Slovenia, which had indicated concerns over the plan in the week before the Council meeting, withdrew its reservation and gave its approval, thus denying the opponents of embryonic stem cell research the necessary votes to constitute a blocking minority under EU voting rules. The result was a victory for a compromise formulation, under which EU funding can be made available for embryonic stem cell research in countries where national law allows it, and subject to a raft of ethical and regulatory controls. The compromise now will go back to the European Parliament in the autumn for final approval, which should allow the new multi-billion dollar funding program to start from the beginning of 2007. EuropaBio, the European association for bioindustries, welcomed the agreement. “Continuing the funding on embryonic stem cells research at the European level is a positive signal for European biotech research, which may one day offer hope for patients suffering from diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” said Secretary General Johan Vanhemelrijck.