Sweden looks set to follow Britain¿s lead in adopting a liberal climate for the conduct of stem cell research. The Swedish Research Council last week released a set of ethical guidelines for scientists working in the country and called for a review of the legislation that governs the area.

The Council backs the use of embryos created during in vitro fertilization treatment that are not considered suitable for implantation. It also has deemed somatic cell nuclear transfer to be ¿ethically defensible¿ and has called for a review of existing legislation that outlaws this procedure.

The response from both the public and the political spheres has been ¿very positive, to my huge surprise,¿ Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, secretary general of the Swedish Research Council, told BioWorld International.

¿All six parties in the Parliament have said they stand behind embryonic stem cell research,¿ she said. They have yet to clarify their respective stances on somatic cell nuclear transfer, however.

The Council also is in favor of deriving stem cells from embryos created solely for research purposes, although it has stopped short of an outright call for the legalization of this procedure, due to the country¿s international treaty obligations.

¿It should be possible for this to be done in the form of voluntary donations from men and women,¿ the council stated. ¿At present, however, in deference to international agreements and the like, such donations are not a method for acquiring stem cells that is endorsed by the Swedish Research Council for use in Sweden.¿ The Council of Europe¿s 1998 convention on the prohibition of human cloning, together with an additional protocol adopted in 1999, defines the country¿s current international position on the issue.

The Council¿s overall initiative is significant as Sweden has emerged as a world leader in stem cell research.

¿Overall, it seems that Sweden has between 25 [percent] and 30 percent of all the stem cell lines in the world,¿ said Wallberg-Henriksson. Stem cell research is under way at two centers: Sahlgrenska University Hospital, which is attached to the University of Gothenburg, and Huddinge University Hospital, which is affiliated with the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm. Between them, these organizations have 29 stem cell lines at varying stages of development and characterization.

However, the research council¿s intervention, which is the outcome of an 18-month consultation process, was not motivated by ambitions to strengthen Sweden¿s position in this emerging field.

¿We have really worked on weighing the ethical dilemma with this kind of research against the possibility we have to treat sick people,¿ Wallberg-Henriksson said.

The UK already has set up a legal framework for regulating somatic stem cell nuclear transfer. Sweden now looks set to follow. Like the UK, it has begun to attract attention from U.S. researchers and research organizations, particularly since President Bush announced a ban in August on the creation of additional stem cell lines using federal funds.

¿After Bush took the decision I had several telephone calls from the U.S. wanting to know the situation here,¿ Wallberg-Henriksson said. These contacts are likely to lead to research collaborations between American and Swedish institutions, she added, saying discussions and negotiations ¿are taking place right now.¿

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