BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ Despite the best endeavors of some 300 scientists, ethicists and industrialists from across the European Union in their two-day conference in Brussels on stem cells Dec. 18-19, the prospect of real consensus seems as elusive as ever.

Although a majority of speakers were ready to give a welcome ranging from cautious to enthusiastic to such research, there was plenty of evidence of deep concern from the floor and from some speakers, particularly over the issue of sourcing stem cells from human embryos.

The European Life Sciences Group, the EU¿s high-level advisory body that organized the conference, could come up with no more at the end of the proceedings than a bland statement to the effect that European citizens ¿expect guidance¿ to deal with the issues raised by stem cell research.

The position of the life sciences group itself is not in doubt. It is strongly supportive of research on human stem cells, which, it says, offers ¿valuable venues into developmental biology and medicine which could revolutionize therapy perhaps on a scale comparable to the introduction of antibiotics.¿ Current research on human stem cells, either from differentiated tissue or from embryos, is ¿scientifically sound and medically promising and should be actively developed and supported,¿ the group said.

Its own view is that the EU should continue to back research with all sources of human stem cells, including human embryonic stem cells ¿ although it says that reproductive cloning should be prohibited. It favors the use of spare human embryos for the preparation of embryonic stem cell lines ¿ if it is ¿carefully regulated, peer reviewed, scientifically sound, directed toward substantial goals and ethically controlled,¿ and publicly and privately funded research should be subject to the same regulations. It also supports the idea of setting up a European registry of human embryonic stem cells.

But the role of the high-level group is limited. It can supply only advice, and facilitate debate ¿ and the two days of discussion demonstrated yet again how wide the range of opinion and how diverse the regulation is within Europe.

The potential for treatments and the advances in technologies are undisputed. Anders Bjvrklund of the Wallenberg Neuroscience Centre in Sweden outlined how expanded progenitors or dopamine neuron precursors could offer, in combination with cell-engineering techniques, new sources of cells for replacement therapy in Parkinson¿s disease. Nissim Benvenisty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem reported how research in his department of genetics made it possible to genetically modify human embryonic stem cells and ¿thus to label and sort out cells at different stages of their differentiation . . . setting the stage for directing differentiation of human embryonic stem cells in culture, and isolation of specific cell types for cellular transplantation.¿

But the current reality is that the different countries in Europe ¿ and different groupings and lobbies within them ¿ have widely differing approaches to what they will allow. John Harris, of the University of Manchester, UK, remarked on ¿the variety, diversity and strength of the various interests involved and the many stakeholders whose concerns require attention,¿ particularly in striking the balance, he suggested, between the respect due to human embryos and due to those who may benefit from stem cell research.

Legislators should limit themselves to prohibiting the unacceptable ¿ notably human reproductive cloning ¿ pointed out Robert Goebbels, the Euro-MP who has just seen the waste of a year¿s work on seeking a consensus position on genetics in the European Parliament (he chaired the special Parliament committee whose draft report was overwhelmingly rejected in the Parliament during November). ¿National bans on particular types of research must not be allowed to prevent the European Union as a whole from supporting research in the countries where it is allowed,¿ he urged.

¿Establishing a proper regulatory framework is a complex and challenging process,¿ conceded Alastair Kent, president of the leading European alliance of patients and parents calling for genetic services. He recognized that ¿the EU is culturally diverse and it is doubtful that there is a common ethical framework capable of embracing the various opinions and beliefs found within its boundaries.¿

Linda Neilsen, professor of law at Copenhagen University, insisted on the need for legislation as a way of providing a framework that would avoid blanket bans on stem cell research. But she, too, accepted that a decision to legislate does not solve the fundamental problems. ¿Law is a reflection of ethics, but not a blueprint,¿ she said, pointing to the different systems currently co-existing uneasily in Europe, from the prohibitive German approach to the absence of regulation ¿ so far, anyway ¿ in Italy and Greece, via the liberal regulation of the UK or the cautious regulation of Scandinavian countries. And she shied away from any attempt to define what the EU competence should be in this confused situation.

Friends Of Earth Blasts U.S. GMO Efforts

Small countries face overwhelming pressure from the U.S. and from biotechnology companies when they are trying to implement strict regulations on GMOs, according to the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth. And, it said, ¿The European Union is under similar pressure.¿

Friends of the Earth recently denounced the U.S. for seeking to dissuade Croatia from implementing the de facto moratorium on new GMO authorizations that is practiced in the European Union. Now the group has additional information, it claimed, which shows that ¿the U.S. and other pro-biotech countries, like Argentina,¿ are bullying small countries that try to adopt laws prohibiting genetically modified organisms.

It said it has evidence that the U.S. and Argentinean governments have threatened to bring World Trade Organization action against small countries planning to adopt strict rules on GMOs. ¿Countries like Sri Lanka and Croatia that planned to adopt bans on GMOs have been facing overwhelming pressure. Bolivia, which adopted a resolution banning GMOs in January 2001, has been forced to revoke its legislation due to pressure from Argentina and its agribiotech corporations,¿ Friends of the Earth said.