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Italian Court Rejects Scientists' Plea to Fund Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Three Italian scientists have lost the first round of what may be a lengthy legal challenge to their government’s decision to exclude human embryonic stem cell work from a call for stem cell proposals, even though such research is legal in Italy. On Friday, 19 July, just 3 days before the deadline for submitting grant proposals, an administrative court in Rome backed up the government’s position and rejected the scientists' appeal.

In Italy, where the Catholic Church has a great deal of influence on public policy, researchers wanting to work on human embryonic stem cells have struggled. So stem cell scientists were waiting eagerly, and anxiously, for a planned call for proposals by Health and Welfare, which had recently allocated 8 million euros to stem cell research. But when that call came out in February, it included a statement that “projects on embryonic stem cells of human origin will be excluded.” On 24 June, three researchers challenged that exclusion by filing a lawsuit in Rome with the Regional Administrative Court of Lazio (TAR). They argued that although Italian law doesn’t permit embryos to be destroyed to create human ES cells, it does allow research with already created lines. To exclude such work from the funding call was an unconstitutional violation of academic freedom, the scientists claimed.

But the court in Rome rejected the scientists' request to cancel the public call, noting that only the institutional recipients of the funding, such as regional councils and universities, are allowed to appeal against the government; individual researchers don’t have that option.

Although it didn't express any judgment on the legitimacy of the government's policy, the TAR did in the preamble to its decision (ordinanza staminali.doc) include a sentence stating that Italian “law poses specific limits to the experimentation on human embryos.”

"The verdict seems to draw inspiration from an ideology more than from the law,” says Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan, who, with Elisabetta Cerbai of the University of Florence and Silvia Garagna of the University of Pavia, filed the lawsuit. “It is also shocking that as individual scientists we do not have the right to appeal against a public call for proposals that limits our freedom to do research that is legal in our country.”

The Italian law that regulates in vitro fertilization (Legge 40) forbids the creation of new cell lines from embryos for scientific purposes but does not prevent researchers from studying them. “The reason why that law has been quoted in the TAR's sentence is totally unclear,” says Vittorio Angiolini, Cattaneo's lawyer. Angiolini told Science that the next move will be to appeal to a higher court, the State Council, as he believes that the decision of the TAR is by no means justified from a legal perspective. But for the moment, researchers such as Cattaneo are being left out from the race for Italy’s stem cell money.