BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ The European Parliament voted Nov. 14 for a cut in the funding for genome research in the European Union¿s research program for 2002-2006. The initial plan ¿ proposed by the European Commission earlier this year ¿ aims to concentrate all the program¿s health-related research on genomics and biotechnology, with a budget of around $2.5 billion. But the Parliament wants to split this allocation in two, earmarking about half of it for major disease areas, particularly cancer and diabetes.
The Parliament also wants to impose tougher ethical controls on the type of biotechnology-related research that can be funded under the program. According to the resolution it adopted, the program should not finance research activity aimed at human cloning for reproductive purposes, the creation of embryos for research purposes including somatic cell nuclear transfer or modification of genetic heritage of human beings for eugenic rather than specific therapeutic purposes.
Research activities, the Parliament said, must respect fundamental ethical principles, notably those that appear in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1997 Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, and the 1998 Paris Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings.
The Parliament view is not entirely negative. It still retains a budget of about $1.3 billion for genomics and biotechnology research over the five years of the program, and acknowledges the need for Europe to maintain its research activity in this area.
¿Europe also needs to be able to play a leading role in research on these issues, which now arise at world level, as well as a coherent contribution to the international debate on them, based on the most precise and complete knowledge,¿ said the Parliament.
Some research into the use of human stem cells can be financed. An ad hoc decision would be made on the basis of each proposal and (because rules differ from country to country across the EU) on the legal framework of the member states involved. Research using adult stem cells and reprogrammed adult cells should get priority for financing, according to the Parliament.
In addition, research on embryo or fetal stem cells deriving from miscarriages or therapeutic abortions may be funded. So too may research on ¿surplus¿ early stage (i.e., up to 14 days) human embryos, provided that this research is legally permitted in the member state in question, and provided that it will be conducted under strict supervision of the relevant national authorities. Research promoting the understanding of legal, ethical and social implications of the new knowledge in the field of human genetics may also be financed.
The Parliament vote is not the final word on the matter. The 15 EU member states also are examining the Commission¿s proposal, but gave signs of wanting to reallocate money from biotechnology for research into major diseases when they discussed the matter at an EU health council meeting in Brussels at the end of October. They plan to reach a formal view in December, at which point the Parliament will also re-examine the proposals. The final form of the program will be decided early next year. However, a cut in the initial allocation for genome funding seems almost certain to be the result.
The member of the European Commission responsible for research, Philippe Busquin, avoided head-to-head confrontation with the Parliament during its debate. He said he was glad there was still some support for genomics, but he indicated that the Commission would bend to the Parliament¿s desire to split the funding between genomics and major diseases. Busquin accepted the need for tight controls on the ethical aspects of the program ¿given their sensitive and controversial nature.¿ He agreed that research on human cloning for reproductive purposes, modifying the genetic heritage of human beings, and creating human embryos solely for research purposes ¿ especially by transfer of cell nuclei ¿ should be excluded from the program.