Stem Cell Research: Already Alive and Kicking

Press coverage in the run up to next week's final Bundestag vote on the import of human embryonic stem cells might give the impression that all stem cell research in Germany is on hold. The reality is very different. This is a large and diverse field in which the German Ministry for Research and Education (BMBF) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany's largest public research funders (DFG is also a sponsor of Next Wave Germany), are investing heavily.

The BMBF alone has funded stem cell research projects to the tune of ?25 million since 1998. Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, the BMBF's Parliamentary State Secretary, estimates that stem cell research has benefited from at least a further ?25 million of institutional funding over the same period of time. This ?50 million total puts Germany among "the European leaders in publicly funded stem cell research", says Catenhusen. And it's a field that is clearly heating up--most of the BMBF's money was disbursed during 2001.

All funded projects currently use stem cells from mice, rats, or primates, or adult human stem cells. Most of the BMBF's support for stem cell research is channelled through two priority programmes: "Biological Replacement of Organ Functions" and "Tissue Engineering". Between them, these account for more than 30 different projects throughout Germany. Further projects are funded through BMBF's Human Genome, Health Research, and Biotechnology Programmes.

Among the DFG-funded projects is the University of Würzburg's Sonderforschungsbereich "Development and Manipulation of Pluripotent Cells". In the near future, the university is planning to establish within this project one of the new "junior researchers groups" ("Nachwuchsgruppe"). The BMBF plans to support two additional junior researchers groups, with a total sum of about ?2.1 million over the next 5 years.

One sector has been slow to join the stem cell research push, however. "Other than in the United States, industrial research initiatives in this area have been very few," laments Catenhusen. But change is in the air even here it seems. In the past 2 years, many smaller enterprises with between five and 15 employees have been funded, sometimes as spin-offs or, as in the case of MainGen in Frankfurt, as a joint venture between university scientists and industry. This last has received BMBF funding for a project due to run until 2004.

But though stem cell research in general is booming in Germany, the political implications of human embryonic stem cell research remain unresolved. The Bundestag faces a heated debate on 30 January, when the issue of whether to allow the import of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes is on the agenda. The Embryo Protection Law (Embryonenschutzgesetz) of 1990 outlaws all embryo research, including the production of human embryonic stem cells, in Germany. However, a loophole remains in that the law does not prohibit their import.

The current uproar was precipitated by an application for a DFG grant from the University of Bonn's Institute for Neuropathology. Ottmar Wiestler and Oliver Brüstle intend to grow neural transplantation cells using human embryonic stem cells, in a project that has been scientifically approved. However the DFG has stalled in giving the final go-ahead, taking into account the ongoing public debate and allowing time for the Bundestag to create a legislative framework.

As Next Wave reported, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder established a National Ethics Council ( Nationaler Ethikrat) in May last year to advise the government. Since then, the DFG has postponed its decision on two more occasions because the Bundestag was not even close to a conclusion. The ethics council finally issued its 20-page report just before Christmas, voting in favor of allowing the import of human embryonic stem cells, under certain conditions, by a small majority of 15 to 9, paving the way for next week's final showdown.

Members of the Bundestag are as divided on the issue as scientists and the public. While partisanship is usually the deciding factor in debates, this time things are different. Apart from the Liberal Democrats (FDP), who unanimously support import, all the other factions (SPD, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, CDU/CSU, and PDS) are split into "pro" and "anti" groups, making the overall vote impossible to call. Several scientists to whom Next Wave Germany spoke are concerned that a Bundestag vote against import would be a serious setback for Germany's research efforts.

So far, seven motions for the debate have been presented, three by the CDU/CSU alone. While Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn are in favor of import, Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin announced last weekend that she would vote against it. Both ministers are scheduled to speak during the plenary session, promising an interesting debate. Look out for Next Wave's report of the event in early February!

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