German minister rebukes stem cell research

New statement disappoints scientists hoping for a softening of current restrictions

By | January 5, 2006

Germany's new Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan recently reiterated her vehement support of Germany's highly restrictive embryonic stem cell law, maintaining the same hard stance she took during the campaign for the hotly contested September national elections. In an interview last month in the daily Berliner Zeitung, Schaven reaffirmed that the new government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel would not support any effort to change its current stem cell law. The four-year-old law, one of the most restrictive in Europe, bans production of embryonic stem cells within Germany and only allows import of cells created before January 1, 2002. Researcher Miodrag Stojkovic left Germany in 2002 to do embryonic stem cell research at University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom. He said he remains in close personal contact with several colleagues in Germany, who are generally saddened by the current legal situation. "Germany is now a lonely island in Europe, along with Italy and Austria," Stojkovic told The Scientist. "I feel sorry for my colleagues in Germany. I think this is pity. The current law is discrimination against scientists in Germany." In the newspaper interview, Schavan, whose resume notes she studied Catholic theology and holds a PhD, said that one of the problems with stem cell work is that it could displace the balance between the ethics of healing and the ethics of protecting life. Researchers "may not surround themselves with the aura of the Creator," said Shavan, a confidante of fellow party member Chancellor Merkel. She added that German research should focus on adult stem cell research, and that the current law was sufficient for German scientists. Christian Herbst, ministry spokesman, confirmed to The Scientist that Schavan's statements in the Berliner Zeitung were accurate, noting Schavan would speak in more detail about her embryonic stem cell research policy "within a few weeks." Herbst declined to give more detail, saying only that Schavan would be "more precise" in explaining her policy. After the article appeared, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the German Research Foundation (DFG), told the weekly magazine Focus that German stem cell law must be changed "so that researchers in Germany may work with better embryonic stem cells." Jürgen Hescheler, head of the Institute of Neurophysiology at the University of Cologne, agreed with Stojkovic that the current mood among German-based stem cell researchers was bad. He predicted that he and other older, more established researchers would probably continue to work in Germany, focusing on basic research. But he said that may not be the case with younger researchers. "A lot of younger people in my lab are looking for jobs in other countries," he said. Hescheler is among Germany's loudest critics of the stem cell law, and said that he and other researchers have recently formed the Society of Stem Cell Research as a political tool to gain public support for a new, less restrictive law. Links within this article Annette Schavan N. Stafford, "German candidates debate science," The Scientist, August 23, 2005. Schaven interview N. Stafford, "Stem cell collaboration illegal," The Scientist, August 31, 2004. Annette Schavan CV N. Stafford, German candidates debate science, The Scientist, August 23, 2005. German Research Foundation Focus Magazine interview Jürgen Hescheler

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