The French National Assembly yesterday approved a new law that aims to ease regulation of research involving human embryos and embryonic stem cells. Although French researchers say that the shift will bring little immediate change to their day-to-day work, they hope that the new law will bring more academic freedom and collaboration.
"We've been fighting for this law for 10 years," says Cécile Martinat, a cell biologist at the Institute for Stem cell Therapy and Exploration of Monogenic diseases (I-STEM) near Paris.
The change effectively reverses the French government's stance toward human embryo and stem cell research. Existing law essentially banned such research unless scientists could show government regulators that there was no other source of cells for their experiments and that the studies could lead to major medical advances. Permits lasted for up to 5 years.
The new law will permit research on human embryos and embryonic stem cells provided it meets all of four criteria: that it has "scientific relevance"; it is performed toward "a medical end"; it "cannot be done without resorting to these embryos or the embryonic stem cells"; and it respects ethical principles.
Researchers in the field hope that the conceptual shift will free them from constraints. "We hope to unlock doors that were stupidly closed," Martinat says. The old law, she says, had enabled opponents of human embryo research to block some studies, for example by arguing that induced pluripotent stem cells could be used as an alternative. Martinat also hopes that the law will make it easier to collaborate with researchers in nations with less restrictive embryo research rules. And it could make it easier for French researchers to work with industry partners interested in testing therapies derived from human embryo research. The old law "was beginning to worry us because we were approaching clinical trials," Martinat says.
Not all researchers see the new law as a victory. It will "inevitably" lead to "the commercialization of human embryos, which is unacceptable," says Alain Privat, a neurobiologist who is a member of the National Academy of Medicine. And although science minister Geneviève Fioraso promoted the new law in part as a way to keep France competitive in the field, critics argue that the old law did little to impede research. Regulators, they say, approved 190 of 215 applications that they received from embryo researchers between 2004 and 2012.