BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - The French government has introduced a new "bioethics" bill into Parliament that would ban all forms of cloning but would permit research using embryonic stem cells. It would supersede a 1994 law that, among other things, imposed a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

The bill characterizes reproductive cloning as a "crime against humanity" and provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years' imprisonment for researchers, practitioners and organizers found guilty of such activity. It also would maintain the existing ban on therapeutic cloning, viewed by critics as the precursor to reproductive cloning.

While the bill would enable research into human embryos and embryonic stem cells to resume after an interruption of nine years, in recognition of its potential benefits in the area of regenerative medicine, it imposes a time limit of five years in the first instance, adding that this period could be extended if justified by the results.

While the creation of human embryos for research purposes will remain banned and subject to severe penalties, French researchers will be able to create embryonic stem (ES) cell lines using the thousands of supernumerary frozen embryos in medical centers around the country that no longer are required for in vitro fertilization programs.

The new bioethics bill does not transpose into French legislation the European Union biotechnology directive of 1998. On the contrary, it restates the French position that human genes and gene sequences are not patentable. According to the author of the new bill, health minister Jean-François Mattei, "To get out of this deadlock, we must find a formula that preserves our principles while constituting an interpretation of the directive that could be defended vis- -vis the European Commission."

The French biotechnology industry association, France Biotech, immediately called for the abolition of the article in the bill relating to the patentability of gene sequences, pointing out that it conflicted with the EU directive and stressing the "absolute necessity" of transposing this directive into French law. On the other hand, it expressed "satisfaction with several pragmatic advances" enshrined in the new draft bill, welcoming in particular both the outlawing of reproductive cloning and the authorization of embryonic stem cell research.