BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Parliament's new ad hoc committee on genetic engineering and new technologies in modern medicine held its first meeting Tuesday, in Strasbourg, France.

Its 36 members from across the political spectrum elected as their president Robert Goebbels, a Euro-MP who is a former foreign minister of Luxembourg, and who has also held ministerial office there for more than 15 years in economy, research, energy and public works. He promised to lead a serious study into bioethics issues so as to "help uncover the virtues and the dangers."

The work is expected to continue for 12 months, and to develop a comprehensive catalogue of new and potential genetic engineering developments and their uses. The committee is also charged with probing the ethical, legal, economic and social issues, and producing recommendations and guidelines to defend the public interest. The group elected Francesco Fiori, an Italian Euro-MP from the dominant European Peoples Party grouping, as its chief draftsman for reports.

The Parliament's Green group has seized on the recent cloning of a primate and on the UK Parliament's go-ahead in late 2000 to the cloning of human embryos for medical purposes as warnings that science may be on the verge of creating transgenic human beings. The group is firmly opposed to human cloning, and sees the establishment of the new committee as an opportunity to generate support for Europe-wide limitations on experimentation. Greens also say they fear that Germany's new Social Democrat health minister, Ulla Schmidt, may join what they see as a pro-biotechnology crusade by Tony Blair's government in the UK - the triumph, the Greens claim, of business interests over society's interests.

New EMEA Director Changes Agency Structure

The new director of the European Medicines Evaluation Agency, Thomas Lvnngren, revealed his first formal change to the agency's structure.

As of last week, the former Unit for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products for Human Use has been reorganized into two operational units. One will deal with post-authorization matters (headed by Noel Wathion), with a sector for regulatory affairs and organizational support, and a sector for pharmacovigilance and safety and efficacy.

The other will deal with preauthorization matters (its head still to be announced), with three sectors, handling scientific advice and orphan drugs, quality, and safety and efficacy. Product teams will replace the system of individual project managers, with members drawn from both units, allowing the team to follow the product during its entire life cycle.

Greens Call For Continued GMO Moratorium

The Green group at the European Parliament is resisting plans to end the current EU moratorium on new commercial releases of genetically modified organisms. Speaking at a meeting titled "GMO-free zones" in the European Parliament in Brussels in January, Euro-MP Paul Lannoye of Belgium, the co-chair of the group, said: "It should be up to regional and local authorities to decide whether they want to refuse the growing of GMO crops in their own territories." He pointed to what he called increasing support for the concept of GMO-free zones in the United States, Brazil, Australia and Japan, and declared that the Greens aimed to turn the entire European Union into a GMO-free zone in the near future.

Fellow Green Euro-MP Heidi Hautala, from Finland, said citizens should be free to decide for themselves whether they wanted GMOs. This is, she said, "not a purely scientific question. It is a fundamental democratic right of citizens to simply refuse the growing and the consumption of food they deem potentially dangerous."

The EU is moving closer to a solution to the labeling and traceability problems for GMOs that persuaded the 15 member states to suspend new authorizations in 1999. A compromise legislative amendment is likely to be agreed to in February. The Greens are calling on Sweden, which has taken over the rotating EU presidency, to keep the moratorium in place.