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Amid Fears, Embryonic Stem Cell Work Continues

10/18/2003 - 12:02 PM PST

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Church Reminds Legislators of Moral Principles


BRUSSELS, Belgium, OCT. 18, 2003 (Zenit) - Debates over human cloning inevitably touch on the question of research with embryonic stem cells. Experiments are continuing with both adult and embryonic stem cells, even as many countries debate legislation on the practice. The national parliaments of Spain and Canada are now considering draft laws that, in part, propose to allow research with embryonic stem cells.

Last summer the European Union released guidelines that contemplate allowing funds to be used for research with stem cells from frozen human embryos, the Associated Press reported July 9. The proposals published by the European Commission added that "the EU will not fund human embryonic stem cell research where it is forbidden." A final decision on the proposals has not yet been taken.

Currently, Sweden, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands and Britain allow research with stem cells from frozen embryos. Germany allows such research only if the stem cells are imported and existed before Jan. 1, 2002. The European Commission also set a cutoff date, June 27, 2002, for when the embryos must have been created. The cutoff does not include the stem cell lines.

The proposals drew criticism from the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community. "Such research raises fundamental moral problems because it involves the destruction of human embryos," COMECE said in a July 9 press release. COMECE argued that the decision on whether to provide financial support for research raises such serious moral concerns that it should be made by individual member states and that the European Union should refrain from joint financing of such research projects.

Meanwhile, Switzerland became the latest European country to approve embryonic stem cell research. The Swiss House of Representatives approved proposals to allow research on stem cells from "surplus" human embryos, Swissinfo reported Sept. 18.

The decision came after the Senate voted to let scientists use stem cells from embryos up to 7 days old. However, the House voted against destroying some 1,000 frozen embryos by year-end. The law prohibits the production of stem cells for research purposes, and trade in stem cells is banned.

Brave new England

Researchers in England are going ahead, backed by generous government funding. Late last year the government announced the world's largest program of research, with 40 million pounds of funds ($66.7 million), the daily Telegraph reported Dec. 10. This amount is on top of 2.6 million pounds ($4.3 million) to be spent on building a national stem cell bank cells, which tops off another 7 million ($11.6 million) already spent in 2002 on the project.

King's College London announced it has developed a line of stem cells grown from a human embryo, BBC reported Aug. 13. Professor Peter Braude, who led the research team, told BBC that the breakthrough of a "bank" of stem cells would greatly help research in the United Kingdom. There are around a dozen lines of such cells available to researchers in the world, BBC said.

But Dr. Helen Watt of the Linacre Center said the research violated the human rights and interests of the embryos. "This [research] is compounding the injustice of what we do to these embryos by attempting to turn them into pharmaceutical products," Watt lamented. The Linacre Center advises the Catholic Church on bioethics.

News of a recent experiment in China bore out Watt's fears. A team of scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University fused human cells with rabbit eggs to produce stem cells, the Associated Press reported Sept. 23.

The scientists removed the nuclei, which contains the DNA, from the rabbit eggs. They then introduced DNA from human skin cells. The resulting embryos were clones of the human donors, although they were never intended to develop into babies. After about a week, researchers were able to obtain stem cells from the embryos.

Results of the study were published in Cell Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences. China is investing aggressively in biotech research, AP reported. Last year the country's spending on biotech totaled $272.4 million.

End run in U.S.

In the United States, the federal government's restrictions are being circumvented at the state level. California recently approved embryonic stem cell research, joining 11 other states that have their own legislation, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Sept. 25. In August 2001, President George Bush restricted federally funded research to the then existing set of stem-cell lines.

The federal government itself recently announced funding for research. The National Institutes of Health announced three grants totaling $6.3 ...

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