BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Parliament last week adopted a more liberal position on stem cells than the European biotechnology industry had dared to hope.

Despite the many calls for tight restrictions, the Parliament's vote backed a permissive approach to EU funding of research in the field. And European industry expressed its satisfaction at the more adventurous stance.

The vote related to proposals for new EU guidelines for approving EU funding of stem cell research projects under the EU's €17 billion research program for 2002-2006. At present, a moratorium on embryo research is in place because of the reticence on ethical grounds of some EU member states to that type of work.

In its debate Nov. 19, the European Parliament gave a green light for funding of embryonic and stem cell research. That sent a powerful message to the ministers from EU member states - which will have the final word next month - to promote research. The debate was highly charged and emotional, but in the end all of the amendments seeking to impose stricter conditions on the use of stem cell research were rejected.

Parliament urged scrapping any cutoff date for the procurement of human embryos used for stem cells and an ad hoc assessment of whether to fund research on the use of human stem cells on the basis of the quality of each scientific proposal and the legal framework of the member states involved. The key limitation Parliament placed on its recommendation was that member states with serious objections should be allowed to prohibit such research on their territory. But crucially, the opinion from Parliament comes out strongly against cautious member states having a power of veto over any funding for embryonic stem cell research across the EU.

"Bio-ethics is a cultural matter and primarily the responsibility of the member states," said Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, of the European Liberal and Democratic Group. "Europe cannot and should not dictate legislation in this area. Unfortunately, some members of the Parliament still think they can impose their religious rules on the rest of Europe, especially regarding sensitive issues like human embryonic research. This is completely against the principle of separation of church and state."

She added: "It should not be the case that in the UK and the Netherlands no new developments can take place, simply because in Austria and Italy stem cell research is prohibited. Right here, Europe has a unique opportunity to bridge the gap with the U.S. on research and development."

Her colleague from the liberal wing, Nick Clegg, said: "There are many ethical concerns surrounding the issue of stem cell research, but it is important that such research can go ahead under an agreed framework of safety and quality rules."

UK member of the European Parliament David Bowe, speaking on behalf of the large socialist group in the Parliament, welcomed the vote, too.

"No country is forced to do anything they believe is wrong," he said. "The associated ethical issues are a matter for national parliaments to decide." The vote was an acknowledgment that "there is no ethical consensus in Europe."

But Peter Liese, the member of Parliament who had tried to steer a moderate course through the evolution of this opinion, described the outcome as a "Pyrrhic victory." He said the position taken by the European Parliament would make it even more difficult to find a consensus among the EU's 15 member states - which, he warned, could lead to an extension of the moratorium.

"I am very disappointed about the result of the vote," he said. "I had wished to see another result. Neither the German government nor the other critical' governments can say yes to this proposal. The EP wasted its chance to give research a clear ethical framework."

A grouping of European bishops added their voice to the condemnation of the vote. "We are deeply concerned by the European Parliament's proposal to allow EU funding for research that will involve the destruction of human embryos," their spokesman said.

At EuropaBio, the association representing the European biotechnology industry, Secretary General Hugo Schepens said he was satisfied with the outcome. "This reflects our opinion that research involving all types of human stem cells should be supported under clear conditions," he said. "It means that the most conservative member states wouldn't be able to restrain the more adventurous one, by blocking EU funding for stem cell research. This is important for competitiveness, for patients, for research and for the European bioscience industry."

Schepens diplomatically sidestepped discussion of the ethical dimension that had set countries like Italy, Germany, Austria and Portugal fiercely against embryo stem cell research. "All approaches are equally respectable and valid," he said, "but the best solution therefore is to let each member state decide what can be done in its own territory."

EuropaBio's position is that stem cell research on all human stem cell types, including embryonic stem cells, should be allowed in order to advance knowledge in biomedicine and its applications in health care. And to take account of the differing cultural and religious beliefs about research using human embryos, it urged that - rather than the EU promoting harmonized rules - industry member states should be free to decide whether or not to permit embryonic stem cell research.