BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ More research is needed before anyone can predict with confidence the future outcome of stem cell research, concluded a two-day conference of European scientists and industry in Brussels last week.

The participants stressed that all possible sources of stem cells ¿ from adults, aborted fetuses, umbilical cord blood and early embryos ¿ should be explored, because precluding exploration of many of these would be a short-sighted decision.

But there is widespread concern in the European scientific and industrial community that the European regulatory context, which currently is an awkward and sometimes contradictory mix of national and European-level legislation, may impede investigation. A European Commission survey on how stem cell research is regulated in the 15 EU member states has revealed many areas of divergence across Europe. The more than 50 scientific, legal, ethical and industry experts at the meeting agreed that there is a need for clearer national regulations in Europe that unambiguously define what is allowed and what is prohibited.

The meeting, organized by the European Commission¿s directorate general for research, to help coordinate European efforts in this field, brought together leading figures from the 15 transnational research projects on stem cell therapy that the EU currently is financing, involving more than 100 laboratories and with a budget of more than EUR27 million (US$25 million).

In line with a recent opinion from the European Union¿s ethics advisory group, all EU-funded projects involve exclusively stem cells taken from adults, umbilical cord blood or aborted fetuses. The ethics advisory group came out firmly against the creation of embryos for research purposes, and considered that therapeutic cloning techniques, for all their potential, are still too immature and present possible risks.

The EU commissioner for research, Philippe Busquin, reaffirmed the EU position during the meeting: Although stem cell research is among the priorities proposed for the EU¿s upcoming research program for 2003-2006, ¿I want to make clear that European research programs do not and will not fund research on embryonic stem cells that involves the creation of an embryo for research purposes.¿ He said a lot could be gained from a stronger exchange of information and coordination across Europe of stem cell research.

The European Commission approach currently is geared toward improving cooperation between investigators and broadening public understanding of the issues. Europe needs a common policy and criteria for quality and safety assessment and for evaluating clinical trials, said Busquin¿s aides after the meeting.

The next step in refining the European approach to this field of research will be a forum of interested parties in Brussels Dec. 18-19 titled, ¿Stem cells: therapies for the future?¿ This will be organized by the European Commission¿s new high-level group on the life sciences, and is intended to encourage a wide but well-informed debate between scientists and other groups.

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