BERLIN--The German Bundestag today voted to "fundamentally ban" the import of human embryonic stem (ES) cells and to allow research on the cells under strict conditions. The long-awaited decision is among the most restrictive passed so far worldwide governing work with human ES cells, permitting work only with stem cell lines created before 30 January--and only if a researcher can demonstrate no feasible alternatives.
Many scientists hope human ES cells, which can in theory become any of the body's cell types, might someday produce treatments for chronic and devastating diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. But the cells have stirred controversy because they are derived from week-old human embryos. In Germany, scientists and politicians have argued that the country's embryo protection law forbidding research on human embryos does not bar work with stem cell lines that were derived outside the country. Debate on the issue has raged for more than a year, since German developmental neuroscientist Oliver Brüstle of the University of Bonn proposed importing human ES cell lines from Israel. The German science funding agency, the Deutscheforschungsgemeinschaft, announced its desire to fund Brüstle's work but agreed to wait until the parliament had debated the issue.
On 30 January, members debated four and a half hours over three proposals, including one complete ban on any import of human ES cells and another motion to allow relatively free import. The winning rule was crafted to prevent additional embryos from being destroyed for German research; only cell lines established before today's vote will be eligible for import. The decision is similar to that made by the Bush Administration last summer, in which only existing ES cell lines may be used for research (ScienceNOW, 10 August 2001).
For Brüstle and other German scientists hoping to use the cells, the wait is not over. The motion passed today calls for the parliament to pass a new law establishing a stem cell review board that would approve scientists' proposals to work with the cells and determine whether alternatives to ES cells exist. It is not clear when the parliament will be able to pass such a law, but Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, parliament member and assistant secretary for research and education, told reporters last week that it was unlikely any new law could take effect before June. Still, researchers were relieved that the Bundestag voted against a full ban, which had been their biggest worry.