BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Stem cell researchers across Europe are increasing the pressure on regulatory authorities to ease limits imposed on their work, with Italy and Germany particularly in the firing line.

Italy's current funding policies "prevent legal work on embryonic stem cells research," said a coalition of scientists. They claim that resources for human embryonic stem cell research are denied, with funding allocated only to research on adult stem cells. "These rules hinder effective collaboration in Europe by Italian laboratories, and run contrary to the spirit of European funding, which expects national alignment at European level to promote scientific progress," said Elena Cattaneo of the center for stem cell research at Milan University.

In support of her position, she quoted the position adopted by the June meeting of the International Society of Stem Cell Research, that no artificial distinction should be made between embryonic and adult stem cell research.

"The ultimately most useful source of cells for a specific disease at present cannot be foreseen," she said, insisting that clinical development requires understanding of basic stem cell biology that necessarily includes study of embryonic cells and their differentiation. "We urge the government of Italy to change this with a dedicated plan to endorse Italy's great potential in this area," she said.

Catteneo also is a key figure in two large stem cell research projects funded by the European Union, EuroStemCell and ESTOOLS, which are bringing together 29 research teams from academic institutions and biotechnology enterprises active in 12 European countries. The projects focus on generating the scientific understanding required to take stem cell technology to the clinic and on deepening knowledge of the basic biology of human embryonic stem cells.

She said scientists in both consortia are concerned that contradictions in stem cell politics and legislation in Europe are seriously hindering their work. "Obstacles to research in Germany and Italy create problems for the free circulation of ideas," she alleged. "Projects that are perfectly legal in Sweden and the UK can draw a three-year prison sentence in Germany." Researchers from Germany might become legally liable by taking on coordinating positions within European networks comprising institutions that generate their own human embryonic stem cell lines, the scientists complained.

In Italy, it is legal to work on already-established human embryonic stem cell lines from frozen discarded embryos, but it is illegal to derive new cell lines.

Research on human embryonic stem cells in Germany is forbidden in general under 2002 legislation, and work on human embryonic stem cell lines is allowed only when they are imported from abroad and have been established from "surplus" embryos before the legislation came into effect.