As the debate over the form and content of the European Union’s next research funding programme – the seven-year, multibillion-euro Horizon 2020 – heats up, the prospect that it will include research involving human embryonic stem cells is looking more fragile.
The Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted last week for its exclusion, referring back to the controversial decision of the European Court of Justice last year that the use of hES cell lines in research was immoral – and therefore unpatentable – because it had once involved destruction of an embryo.
The Legal Affairs Committee argued that since such research was unpatentable in Europe, it could not contribute to European competitiveness. And since the main aim of Horizon 2020 is to stimulate European competitiveness, such research should not be funded by the programme.
Many legal experts consider this reasoning false.
Those in favour of including hES cell research in Horizon 2020 say the research is needed to help develop therapies for today’s untreatable diseases where cells need to be replaced, like Alzheimer’s, and say that alternative routes – for example, using induced pluripotent cells – are not yet sufficiently advanced. They also point out that hES cell lines used in research are derived from spare embryos from in vitro fertilisation which would otherwise be destroyed.
It’s early days. The European Parliament and the European Council, which represents member states, have until the end of next year to finalise the shape of Horizon 2020, which will launch in 2014. Parliamentary committees for industry and research, and for environment and public health, are expected to comment on the issue in the next weeks and it will be battled out in Parliament’s plenary in the next months.
Meanwhile the European Patent Office (EPO) is now sifting through the hundreds of patent applications referring to hES cells which had been pending in anticipation of the European Court of Justice ruling. In June the EPO published new guidelines, excluding applications which made use of hES cell lines derived from embryos.