BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Commission has renewed its independent advisory group on ethics in science and new technologies. Initially set up in 1992 by Jacques Delors when he was president of the European Commission, the group was designed to provide an impartial input into the ethical questions raised by biotechnology. Romano Prodi, the current president, has appointed 12 members (four women and eight men) from 12 countries for 2001 through 2004, drawn from different disciplines, and chosen for their expertise and personal qualities.

They include Noƫlle Lenoir, the French lawyer who has chaired the committee since 1997, and three other lawyers. The four scientists in the group include Anne McLaren, who works at the Wellcome Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology in Cambridge. There are also four social scientists.

The reasoning behind the group's existence is that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is part of the basic European Union Treaty, so any EU action in research policy or the law on the patentability of inventions derived from biotechnology must take into account fundamental ethical principles. The group reflects the mixed nature of the EU itself, in that it's not a purely economic entity, but also concerned with citizens" welfare and the pursuit of shared values. The first subject the group will be tackling, at the request of Prodi, concerns the ethical aspects of the patentability of living matter - in particular inventions involving the use of stem cells from human embryos.

The environmentalist pressure group Friends of the Earth called on European governments on April 27 to suspend the authorization of a genetically modified maize crop, T25, produced by the Franco-German biotech company Aventis. The group says the crop has been strongly criticized by independent scientists during a UK investigation last year. The maize was granted EU approval in 1998 for cultivation and import, but groups around Europe are now demanding that this GM maize be banned.

Friends of the Earth has published evidence suggesting that chickens fed with the GM maize showed what it calls "suspicious" trends in growth and death rates, and quotes one scientist, professor Bob Orskov, director of the International Feed Resource Unit in Aberdeen, as saying: "As a scientist, I wouldn't drink milk from cows fed this GM maize with the present state of knowledge. The scientific case put forward for this GM maize is not adequate."

The European Parliament's temporary committee on human genetics and new technologies in modern medicine found itself unable to agree how the wide range of attitudes in Europe on these matters can be reconciled, when it met in Brussels on April 26.

During this latest stage of the committee's review of EU rules governing biotechnology, one of the experts, Cinzia Caporale, professor of bioethics and education on the environment at the University of Sienna, in Italy, said she saw no hope of achieving any form of "ethical uniformity" in the EU, and recommended leaving it up to individual member states to establish their own rules on bioethics.

However, this would leave Europe open to the problem of "genetic tourism," or shopping around for the best deal in areas such as fertility treatments, complained Irish Euro-MP Avril Doyle, who feared that the ban in the UK against selecting an embryo for non-medical reasons (such as to choose the sex of the child) might be circumvented by what she considered "freer" practices elsewhere in Europe.

Demetrio Neri, professor of bioethics at the University of Messina, in Italy, said that rules on biotechnology should not get bogged down on issues such as the definition of an embryo, but should establish clear, acceptable limits in the fields of research and authorized clinical applications. The next meeting takes place on May 15 and will look at the use of genetic information.

The committee hopes to complete its preliminary draft report in early September. As part of the work, there will also be a hearing in Brussels on embryo research on June 18th and 19th, with representatives from EU member state parliaments and from the 13 countries (mainly from central and eastern Europe) that are now trying to join the EU. This will be followed by a public hearing on July 9th and 10th.

A group of experts established by Philippe Busquin, European commissioner for research, has produced a comprehensive inventory of research on transmissible spongiform encephalitis being carried out in the EU member states and at the EU level. Busquin said the inventory is expected to help promote coherence in European research efforts in the field. The upsurge in such diseases - which has given rise to the widespread mad cow disease in Europe, and a growing incidence of the related new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans - has presented the research community with a direct challenge and made it necessary to share scientific knowledge to better cope with the problem, and to advise on how to deal more effectively with similar epidemics in the future.

The inventory shows that European research is handicapped by the lack of well-characterized sample materials, limited availability of animal models and cell lines, and lack of trained scientists to carry out the research. On the basis of the conclusions, the commission's research department intends to inject further EU funds in relevant research activities.

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