European Ministers have agreed to fund some human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research, in a compromise that bans any work involving the destruction of embryos. However, this would not prevent European funding of 'subsequent steps', the Ministers agreed at a European Council meeting held today. UK scientists had urged the Ministers to accept the recent recommendation of the European Parliament, which last month voted by 284 votes to 249 to allow EU funding for ES cell research. The measure - the latest stage of the approval for Europe's 2007-2013 research budget, the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) - stated that EU money should not be used for human reproductive cloning, genetic alteration of humans or the creation of human embryos specifically for research. The deal reached today followed pressure from a German-led coalition to ban all EU funding of ES cell research.
Policy on human ES cell research varies across Europe, with some countries banning all embryo research, while others allow such research to take place under strict guidelines. The UK, Belgium and Sweden have the most liberal regulatory approach to such work. But eight other countries - Austria, Germany, Malta, Poland, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia - argue that Member States that do not permit the research should not have to share the cost of funding it elsewhere. Last week, German Research Minister Annette Schaven again called for a ban on funding for ES cell research. According to Reuters news agency, she wrote in a letter to the Council: 'EU science programme should not be used to give financial incentives to kill embryos'. The group of opposing countries together held 91 votes within the Council, one more than the 90 needed to potentially block the FP7 budget's approval.
The decision follows President Bush's veto of a bill approved by Congress that would have allowed federal funding of ES cell research in the US. Commenting on this development, Martin Rees, President of the UK's Royal Society said: 'Last week the United States decided to stay in the slow lane on stem cell research, hindering the global race to develop therapies that could benefit millions of people', adding 'some countries wish to force the European Union as well into the slow lane'. He said that whilst banning European money for ES cell research would not prevent national funding, 'it would still deliver a big blow to the hopes of patients worldwide'.
UK physicist Stephen Hawking, who has motor neuron disease, has also criticised President Bush and the European governments who are blocking ES cell research funding. He told the Independent newspaper that Europe should not follow the 'reactionary lead' of Bush. 'Stem cell research is the key to developing cures for degenerative conditions like Parkinson's and motor neuron disease from which I and many others suffer', he said. He dismissed the arguments of those who object to ES cell research because it involves the destruction of embryos, saying 'it is morally equivalent to taking a heart transplant from a victim of a car accident'.
Eight EU-funded projects on ES cells were funded under the previous FP6 budget. The FP7 funding will allocate €54.5 billion (£38 billion) for scientific research in Europe over the next seven years, less than the €70 billion the European Commission had asked for two years ago.