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EU supports funding of embryonic stem-cell research

Scientists, carrying out embryonic stem cell research, say stem cells could cure degenerative conditions. EU governments said such research, which is controversial because the donated embryos are destroyed to obtain the stem cells, would continue at least through 2013. U.S. President George W. Bush last week vetoed legislation that would have allowed federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cells. Yesterday's decision „will promote European research and European success,” Finnish Trade and Industry Minister Mauri Pekkarinen said in Brussels after governments approved a new seven-year research program. European companies including ReNeuron Group Plc are studying stem cells, the building block of all tissues. Human embryonic stem-cell research is part of projects valued at about € 70 million ($88 million) under the EU's current multi-annual research program of € 20 billion ending this year, according to the European Commission, the bloc's regulatory arm. Under the planned 2007-2013 research program of about € 55 billion, the EU will continue to fund human embryonic stem-cell projects on a „case-by-case” basis, said Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik.
Ministers from European Union member states have agreed to continue funding research on embryonic stem cells. Some countries oppose the research, but scientists say the cells are the key to treating diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Last week US President George W Bush used his veto for the first time to limit federal funding for the research. The EU ministers agreed not to fund activities that destroyed human embryos but said other research could continue. We clarified what actually we do and we committed ourselves to continue in that direction also in the future. Potocnik said, the EU would not finance the "procurement" of embryonic stem cells - a process which results in the death of the embryo - but it would finance the "subsequent steps" to make use of the cells. Stem cells are able to turn themselves into any other type of cell in the body, and it is hoped therefore that they can be used to repair parts of the body or develop new drugs.
The Bush administration has limited U.S. government funding of stem-cell research to cell lines - cell cultures that can be grown indefinitely in the laboratory - that already exist. The EU says there are not enough existing lines available for the research. The commission will decide on individual stem-cell projects in cooperation with national officials, as is the existing practice. The EU resumed human embryonic stem-cell research in 2004 following a temporary ban in late 2002 prompted by ethical concerns in some of the bloc's countries. The cells are removed from human embryos left over from fertility treatment and earmarked for disposal. Five countries voted against the decision - Austria, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovakia. To ease the persistent worries of countries including Germany and Italy, the commission today pledged to continue preventing EU funds from being used for the process of destroying human embryos. Germany, Italy and Slovenia were won over by the decision not to fund activities causing the destruction of embryos. "We must conserve human life from its conception. We want no financial incentives to kill embryos," German Research Minister Annette Schavan had told fellow ministers earlier in the day.
Together the eight countries could have blocked adoption of the EU's € 54billion (£37billion) research budget for 2007-13, of which stem cell research forms a very small part. „We aren't financing the procurement” of embryos, Potocnik said. „We are financing the use.” German Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan highlighted the political sensitivity of the issue, saying „there should be no financial incentives for the killing of embryos.” A spokeswoman for Europabio, which represents European biotech companies, said the industry was happy with the outcome. Roman Catholic teaching influences some of the countries, which oppose stem cell research. In Germany, memories are colored by Nazi experiments during World War II.
If the EU bans funding for stem cell research, scientists will only seek funding from elsewhere. UK Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the UK are among the most enthusiastic backers in Europe of stem cell research. In practice, most European stem cell research is funded at national, rather than European level, and uses adult rather than embryonic stem cells. "Really nothing has changed," said Irish Enterprise Minister Micheal Martin. Portuguese Minister Jose Mariano Gago said: "We must avoid a situation where our scientists emigrate to other countries." The European Parliament must agree to the ministers' compromise, but Mr Potocnik said he thought it would not be a problem. (Bloomberg, BBC News)