BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - "No clear proof of the utility of stem cells has yet been shown."

So said the European Union's senior advisory committee on research and ethics last week. It also said that "a lot of research is performed on stem cells, in particular research into differentiation of pluripotent stem cells into specific cell types, which could be used for the treatment of chronic diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer or cardiac infarcts, as well as research on regenerative medicine." But it said the use of cord blood cells in regenerative medicine "is currently purely hypothetical."

That assessment came in the context of a March 18 opinion on the ethics of umbilical cord blood banking, delivered by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. That group, which reports directly to European Commission President Romano Prodi, and now is chaired by the Swedish philosopher, Göran Hermerén, is routinely asked to develop views on the most contentious aspects of biotechnology.

In the opinion, it concluded that official support should be increased for public umbilical cord blood storage to facilitate allogeneic use. But it came out strongly against commercial cord blood banks for autologous use, saying their legitimacy "should be questioned" because "they sell a service, which has presently no real use regarding therapeutic options."

The group also welcomed the agreement reached earlier this month on new EU rules on quality and safety standards for the donation, procurement, testing, processing, preservation, storage and distribution of human tissues and cells. That measure, which has taken two years to win agreement, provides a legal framework for authorization, licensing, accreditation, inspections, controls, promotion and staff qualifications. After many disagreements over detail, the final text has just been signed off by EU ministers and the European Parliament.

Pressure On EU Countries For Patent Protection

EU authorities last week initiated legal proceedings against Austria, Germany and Sweden for their failure to implement the EU's 1998 biotechnology patent directive. Sensitivity over biotech patents has delayed implementation in many member states, and the EU already has started action against the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Italy.

Winning Biotech Support Through Culture

The latest ploy by the EU to win over a biotech-skeptical public was a conference on March 22 in Genoa, Italy - the European capital of culture this year. Leading figures from the arts, humanities and politics took the stage to discuss "modern biology and visions of humanity," and to explore why science and biology inspire "both fascination and fear." Contrasting contemporary fears of new technologies with the adventurous spirit of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the meeting aimed to boost grass-roots support for advances in genetics.

Countdown To EU Decision On GM Rice

The EU's member states have until March 28 to object to an application by German-based Bayer CropScience to import into the EU a GM rice (LL Rice 62) that has been modified to resist the company's own herbicide, glufosinate ammonium. UK authorities gave a positive risk assessment of the rice on Jan. 28, and it is the first time that a company has asked for a GM rice authorization in Europe. But European governments are urged to reject the application as a way "to prevent control of the world's most important staple food falling into the hands of multinational companies," said Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace last week.

Europe In WTO Dock On GM Food Bans

The World Trade Organization announced the three panelists that will preside over the trade dispute concerning Europe's bans on GM foods. The U.S., Argentina and Canada continue with their formal trade complaint against the European Union over its resistance to genetically modified foods. But in line with WTO procedures, the dispute will be conducted behind closed doors. A decision can be expected by the end of the year, and if WTO dismisses the EU objections to GM foods, Europe could face fines and instructions to weaken its controls on the use of GMOs. Meanwhile, further action against the EU's new rules on GMO labeling - that enter into force next month - might also come under similar attack. U.S. agri-food manufacturers recently wrote to President Bush claiming that the new EU rules "are non-tariff trade barriers that violate WTO obligations and will result in significant losses to the U.S. and agriculture industry."