GERMANY: New stem cell law lowers restrictions

The German Federal Parliament has reduced strict regulations on stem cell research. Scientists can now use younger embryonic stem cells from abroad, the qualifying date for procurement being 1 May 2007 and no longer 1 January 2002.

A clear majority of the parliament voted for a liberalisation of restrictions on research involving embryonic stem cells last month. Debates on stem cell research had not been under the party whip and divisions on the issue crossed party lines.

Neither complete abolition of the deadline regulation nor an overall ban on stem cell research found a majority. But German scientists involved in international research projects no longer have to fear possible prison sentences. Researchers now have up to 500 foreign stem cell lines at their disposal instead of the previous 20 to seek remedies for serious diseases.

The Embryo Protection Law prohibits culturing of new stem cell lines in Germany. Stem cell lines imported from abroad are subject to strict assessment and are required to come from embryos that were produced for use in reproductive medicine but are no longer suitable for that purpose.

Federal Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan was severely criticised by the Catholic Church for supporting the new regulations, with Cologne's Archbishop calling her "unprincipled and untruthful". Christian Democrat Schavan, herself a theologian, used to be Vice-President of the Central Association of German Catholics. Protestant church representatives respect the decision.

Schavan argues that while research involving adult stem cells may be promising, it should be compared with research using embryonic stem cells. So a need for the latter exists even though some may reject such a comparison for ethical reasons. Fellow Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel also approved the new stem cell regulations.

But the more liberal law on stem cell research can only be a temporary solution, if not a postponement of the root problem, which is certain to cause further controversy. According to leading stem cell researcher Professor Oliver Brüstle, the new regulations allow German scientists to cooperate with colleagues in Sweden, the UK, Israel and the USA who dispose of qualitatively high-value stem cell lines. Nevertheless, Brüstle stresses that Germany is still lagging far behind several other European countries, such as Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the UK, where qualifying dates for the cell imports do not exist.

The German Research Foundation, the country's chief research funding body, welcomed the outcome of the stem cell debate. Ahead of the parliamentary vote, its vice-president, Professor Jörg Hinrich Hacker, had already argued for abolition of the qualifying date rule altogether in a live chat session on the DFG website. Hacker also called for an end to the "criminalisation of German researchers", claiming the legislation was deterring young researchers in particular from becoming involved in stem cell research.