BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies wants the European Union to leave the door wide open to stem cell research. The group, which advises the European Commission on ethical questions relating to science and new technologies, has come out with a firm endorsement of the therapeutic potential of stem cells.

The opinion discusses the ethical questions raised by European Union financing of research or controls on safety standards, and sets out some ethical principles - chiefly respect for human dignity and the principles of consent, justice and "beneficence" (defined as improvement and protection of health), freedom of research, and proportionality between the research methods used and the aims pursued.

But its 12 members, from different European Union member states and a variety of disciplines, have not issued prescription. Their opinion takes as a basis Europe's legal and ethical pluralism, and issues a reminder that it is for each member state to legislate on the derivation of stem cells from human embryos.

"Pluralism is characteristic of the European Union, mirroring the richness of its tradition and adding a need for mutual respect and tolerance. Respect for different philosophical, moral or legal approaches and for diverse cultures is implicit in the ethical dimension of building a democratic European society," the group said.

The group also said that unnecessary barriers to research should be removed. Although some countries ban embryo research, "when this research is allowed, with the purpose of improving treatment for infertility, it is hard to see any specific argument which would prohibit extending the scope of such research in order to develop new treatments to cure severe diseases or injuries," it said.

But it also called for prudence, saying, "At present, the creation of embryos by somatic cell nuclear transfer for research on stem cell therapy would be premature, since there is a wide field of research to be carried out with alternative sources of human stem cells: from spare embryos, fetal tissues and adult stem cells."

The group, chaired by Noelle Lenoir, a judge in the French constitutional council, recommends a specific EU budget for stem cell research, and for the research results to be widely circulated at European level. It said that in countries where research on embryo cells is authorized, all research should be authorized under strict public control by a centralized authority, with a high degree of public information. All projects should undergo ethical assessment (paid for by the EU) before launch and during implementation. And it is important, it said, that "the demand for spare embryos and oocyte donation does not increase the burden on women" undergoing fertility treatment.

Clinical testing should pay priority attention to safety and protection of the health of the patients, particularly since transplanted stem cells could cause abnormalities or induce the creation of cancerous tumors.