BioWorld International Correspondent

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), Germany's principal research funding agency, is seeking to re-open a political debate on human embryonic stem cell research, which is strictly regulated in the country.

The Berlin-based organization has issued a policy document recommending three main reforms to the country's Stem Cell Act of 2002, which presently permits the importation and use of human embryonic stem cell lines only for research purposes and only in exceptional circumstances.

However, it is not seeking any reform of the Embryonic Protection Act of 1990, which outlaws research on embryos, including somatic cell nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning.

"There is no chance to change anything about the Embryo Act. That is fixed, and it was such a difficult discussion nobody wants to open that box again," said Cornelia Pretzer, spokeswoman for the Berlin-based DFG.

But the DFG is seeking changes to the 2002 law in order to widen the choice of cell lines available to licensed German investigators; to permit the use of human embryonic stem cells for diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic purposes; and to remove the threat of criminal sanctions on German-based scientists working with overseas collaborators and on German researchers working in overseas labs.

At present, scientists in Germany are permitted to work on stem cell lines only derived before Jan. 1, 2002. That restricts them to 22 cell lines, said Jörg Hacker, chairman of the Institute for the Molecular Biology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Würzburg, who is vice president of the DFG. "We would like to use new stem cell lines, which are established in foreign countries," he said.

Those that are permitted at present were derived using feeder cells and are contaminated with cell products that are of non-human origin. "Although older cell lines generated before 2002 can still be used for some basic studies, they are not suitable for therapeutic applications. International consortia, such as large EU projects, increasingly work on newly generated lines. The current policy of the German government will result in a systematic international isolation of German researchers," said Oliver Brüstle, director of the Institute of Reconstructive Neurobiology at the University of Bonn.

The older cell lines also are subject to higher costs and more restrictive material transfer agreements than are newer lines, such as those being deposited at the UK Stem Cell Bank, said James Adjaye, leader of the molecular embryology and aging group at the Max Planck Institute of Genetics in Berlin. "In that respect, of course, the law is not in our favor," he said.

Although German stem cell research is lagging behind the world's leaders, individual researchers can make a contribution if, he said, they can find a useful niche. Adjaye's group is using a functional genomics platform available within the Vertebrate Genomics Department at the Max Planck Institute to explore stem cell biology. "We can go much further addressing issues, such as how you can keep stem cells undifferentiated," he said. The group published two papers in Stem Cells last month. "There is a lot to do even with the lines we have."

The DFG is asking the German government to revoke the cutoff date, although some members of the research community think that may not be politically feasible. "I don't believe this will be possible. I'm a little skeptical about this," said Anna Wobus, of the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Gatersleben, and coordinator of Germany's main "priority program" in embryonic and somatic stem cell research from 2001 to 2007. Wobus said that limiting researchers to working with cell lines that were at least a year old might be more acceptable politically, as it would allay concerns that any planned experiments would act as a motivating factor for the derivation of the cell lines.

More than a dozen groups around Germany work on human embryonic stem cells, said Hacker, but the DFG fears that young researchers are discouraged from entering the field because of the restrictions or are moving abroad to work in overseas labs. And there are ongoing uncertainties that German scientists working in the UK or Sweden, which have more liberal regimes, may be infringing the current legislation.

"The Stem Cell Act at present is not as precise as it could be," he said. The DFG is seeking the scope of the law to be limited "unambiguously" to within the country's borders.

The present law is the result of political compromise, following a period of public debate in 2001, which also was led by the publication of a DFG document. "It was better than no law," Hacker said.

Reacting to the DFG's latest publication, which reviews the development of the field during the past five years, Germany's federal minister for education and research, Annette Schavan, stated that she was opposed to any revocation of the current cutoff point, but was open to a discussion on the current uncertainties regarding international cooperation.

Ministry officials were not available for further comment. Nevertheless, the DFG has met with a group of German parliamentarians and hopes to have the issue raised in the German parliament during the first half of 2007, Hacker said.