BRUSSELS, Belgium - Against the background of European disenchantment with biotechnology, the European Commission is organizing a public debate in Brussels on Nov. 6-7 on the responsible exploitation of genome information in health, food, environment and society.

According to Philippe Busquin, commissioner for research, "We all realize that developments in life sciences are increasingly and profoundly impacting on our lives, but we don't always know what this means. This is why I have asked a group of top-level European scientists to organize this meeting. It is not about life sciences, it is about life sciences and society."

The aim is to prompt scientists to communicate more effectively with society at large - which will be represented at the conference by politicians, industry and non-governmental organizations and consumer representatives. The commission openly admits: "Scientific progress and industrial exploitation of human genome information are critically perceived by the public and by policymakers."

This conference is the first concrete outcome of the work of the new life sciences group set up to advise the Commission on likely developments of life sciences and technologies. It will be chaired by Axel Kahn, president of the high-level group. The Commission said it will be "an unbiased discussion of the scientific, economic and ethical implications of advanced genetic research."

The European Commission also is backing a series of open discussion events during November in Spain, the UK, Germany, Italy and Belgium, where the public will be able to meet scientists and journalists and discuss recent developments in genetics, such as what the human genome is, and why scientists are mapping it. Craig Venter, the American scientist whose company, Celera Genomics, finalized a first draft of the human genome sequence on June 26, will address these questions with the public for the first time in Europe, during an open conference in Milan on Nov. 12. The project is part of this year's European Science and Technology Week, which aims to demonstrate the successes and importance of science in a manner accessible to the non-specialist.

German Legislation Draft Restricts Gene Patenting

The German government has introduced draft legislation that protects biotechnology inventions but restricts the patenting of human genes. The draft law lays down clear ethical limits, categorically excluding the patenting of human cloning, processes altering genetic identity in humans and the use of human embryos for commercial or industrial ends. But human DNA sequences can be patentable if an invention gives clear indications of potential commercial uses, such as for pharmaceutical research. This is Germany's manner of putting into national effect the 1998 EU directive on the protection of biotechnology inventions, which has so far been transposed only in Finland and Denmark.

Other member states have deferred implementing legislation they initially planned to bring in this year to meet the deadline set by the directive, because they are awaiting resolution of a continuing debate in Europe over the directive's distinction between "discoveries," which cannot be patented, and "inventions," which can. The Netherlands and Italy have lodged an appeal against the directive at the European Union's Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and France has refused to transpose the directive - attitudes that have won backing from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Tighter Controls Eyed On GM Grapevine Varieties

The European Parliament has called for tighter controls on the introduction of genetically modified varieties of grapevines. During its plenary session meeting in Strasbourg, France, on Oct. 23, it backed a report from German Christian-democrat Euro-MP Christa Klass, which says the European Commission should update its legislation on the marketing of material for vine propagation to take account of recent progress, particularly in biotechnology. The Commission already has indicated it plans to do so, with a view to easing trade. But the Parliament view is that the Commission is not being careful enough about biotechnology-derived products. The Parliament adopted a series of amendments from Green group Euro-MPs that seek to impose tough conditions for the use of GMOs.

Scientists Not United On GM Maize

European Union scientific experts remain divided on the merits of GM maize. The EU's Standing Committee on Food has failed in its latest attempt to agree on a response to Italy's suspension of the marketing of processed products using four varieties of genetically modified maize. Germany, Denmark, Greece and Austria backed Italy during a vote in the committee, and Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Sweden abstained. Only the United Kingdom, Portugal, Finland, Spain and Ireland backed the European Commission, which had planned to order Italy to lift the ban.

The committee said after its Oct. 19 meeting that the Italian decision should be examined in the broader framework of an EU review of the GMO authorization procedure, which the European Commission announced in July. Because the EU member states cannot agree, the European Commission has had to withdraw its proposed action against Italy.

Blair Declares Neutrality On GM Issue

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair nailed his colors firmly to the fence when he spoke of biotechnology regulation to the Confederation of British Industry's conference on Oct. 24. He said of GM foods: "Contrary to the myth that somehow wicked multinationals and politicians have pressed us to be pro-GM, I am fully aware of the potential impact on biodiversity and people's concerns about health. I am neither pro nor anti. I simply say: Let us evaluate the technology, test it, and then make a judgement, rather than ban it before we even look at it."

Closer Links With Korea, Singapore

The European Union is planning closer links with Korea and Singapore to boost biotechnology research. During the Asia-Europe Meeting of heads of state in Seoul on Oct. 21, agreement was reached at a discussion on globalization on a Trans-Eurasian telecommunications superhighway. The network will be used for joint research activities between institutes across the Eurasia region, and in particular to foster cooperation in biotechnology.

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