The future funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research under the European Union (EU) may be in jeopardy
after its inclusion in the next research funding programme is challenged by MEPs.
A Nature News blog reports the
European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee voted to exclude hESC research
from Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme due to run from
2014, citing the contentious decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) prohibiting
the granting of patents for processes that involve the destruction of embryos at any stage.
The Committee said if hESC research
cannot be patented under European law, then it could not contribute to economic
competitiveness and should not be funded by Horizon 2020. Patents are required
to help stimulate EU competition, which is one of the intended functions of the
In the draft proposals of
Horizon 2020, the €80 billion programme would finance stem cell research including
hESC research, which is allowed under the current programme. However, four
pro-life MEPs, who do not agree with public funds contributing to such research,
have indicated that they intend to challenge the legality of Horizon 2020 for
its inclusion of hESC research.
Peter Liese, an MEP from
Germany who opposes the programme, was quoted in Europolitics as saying: 'We reject harmonisation of
national regulations on this sensitive issue in Europe'. Two key issues that
opponents of Horizon 2020 intend to address are the patentability of hESC research and how projects currently under way are to be funded.
The ECJ judgment forms a focal
point for the argument against the programme, as Professor Klaus GÃ¤rditz of the University of Bonn in
Germany submits. He told Europolitics that 'life cannot be taken away to be
'Human dignity...is a primary
right', he said. 'Research on embryonic stem cells must therefore be excluded
by substantive law. If certain prohibited areas are subsidised, the entire
framework programme is in danger. The risk to European research is huge'.
Supporters of hESC under the Horizon
2020 programme argue that the research is essential for the development of treatments
for disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone
disease. It is also argued that alternatives to hESC research, such as using induced pluripotent stem cells or adult stem cells, are insufficient methods in comparison. Fundamentally,
those in favour of hESC research say that cell lines used are obtained
from IVF clinics, and would otherwise be destroyed.
The UK and Europe are at the
pinnacle of stem cell research, says Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director
at the British Heart Foundation, who argues that 'any scaling back of the EU's
investment would send out a dangerous message that could seriously damage this
area of research in Europe, to the detriment of patients in the future'.
Sir Mark Walport, director of
the Wellcome Trust, in an earlier joint statement urging funding of hESC research in Europe, said: 'The European Parliament must send a clear sign that
it recognises the importance of [hESC] research...to close down such a vital
avenue of research would be a massive blow to European science'.
'It will significantly set
back research into very serious diseases including Parkinson's and multiple
sclerosis and is likely to cost European research its competitive advantage',
Whether Horizon 2020, as it
stands, is to be advanced or rejected needs to be decided by the EU's Parliament
and Council by the end of 2013.