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Furor over Wilmut prize

Dolly cloner is awarded the prestigious Ehrlich prize amid widespread protest in Germany

By | March 15, 2005

As UK scientist Ian Wilmut received Germany's top medical research award Monday in Frankfurt, more than two dozen protestors gathered outside the ceremony was held to voice disapproval, asserting that Wilmut's cloning research would be illegal in Germany.

The protestors were just a small indicator of the furor created by Wilmut's arrival in Germany to accept the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for 2005, which is associated with Frankfurt University and carries a cash award of €100,000 (USD $132,000).

Wilmut, whose groundbreaking research at Scotland's Roslin Institute led to the birth of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, was also the target of headline-generating criticism from politicians, church groups, a major medical organization and even, indirectly, Germany's leading research funding organization, the German Research Foundation (DFG).

While the United Kingdom allows therapeutic cloning and production of human embryos for research, Germany's law, adopted in 2002 after much debate and compromise, bans domestic production and allows import only of embryonic stem cells created before 2002 for research of "overwhelming significance." Scientists in Germany have complained about the lack of access to newer lines of stem cells.

In February, Wilmut and Christopher Shaw of the Institute of Psychiatry in London obtained regulatory approval to clone human embryos for medical research into the cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). Wilmut's critics in Germany said such research would be illegal in their country, noting that nearly half the €100,000 prize money came from the federal government.

The physician's organization Marburger Bund issued a statement saying it is "more than strange when a British scientist whose cloning experiments would be punished here in Germany is rewarded with German tax money."

Wilmut seemed unfazed by the commotion his visit caused, with photos in the German press of his smiling bearded face next to the bronze bust of prize namesake Paul Ehrlich.

"As the prize is actually awarded for the research that lead to the birth of Dolly it is incorrect to say that it would have been illegal in Germany," Wilmut told The Scientist by Email. "Experiments to clone animals were and still are legal in Germany."

"I recognise that production of cells from cloned human embryos would be illegal, but that is only a small part of our research," he continued. "The greatest effort is being made to understand the mechanisms that reprogramme nuclei."

"These scientific experiments fundamentally altered the visions in embryology. They will establish new boundaries in animal-rearing and human medicine," the Paul Ehrlich Foundation said in a statement. But the foundation stressed that "Wilmut has no doubts that the reproductive cloning of human beings should be banned."

Bernhard Fleckenstein, a member of the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation, which oversees the prize, defended the council's decision to award the prize to Wilmut at a press conference Sunday and during a speech at Monday's award ceremony.

In an interview with The Scientist, Fleckenstein, head of the Institute for Clinical and Molecular Virology at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, said he had expected the choice of Wilmut to evoke some dissatisfaction, but not such a huge outpouring of criticism. "This was a bit more than we expected."

Was Fleckenstein troubled by the criticism? "It does not bother me at all. On the contrary, it gives us a good opportunity to speak about this issue."

However, Fleckenstein said he was highly disturbed by what he sees as a very unfriendly environment in Germany for life sciences research. "I think we have more problems in our country than other countries. How can it be that we have more political movements against modern research and development here than in another countries?"

Answering his own questions, Fleckenstein said: "Maybe there are historical reasons. Maybe it is because of psychological causes from World War II. Maybe. I don't know."

Fleckenstein added that Wilmut had stated during his Frankfurt visit that he would not use any of the prize money for research that would be illegal in Germany.

Eva-Maria Streier, spokeswoman for the German Research Foundation (DFG), said that the foundation had not been involved in the prize selection process and therefore would not comment directly on the decision. However, she issued a short statement from DFG President Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker: "Concerning therapeutic cloning, our opinion is unchanged, that therapeutic procedures with humans is the wrong way."

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