Speech stirs stem cell debate

German justice minister says stem cell law should be looser, emboldening scientists

Nov 7, 2003
Ned Stafford(hn@europefn.de)

Recent comments by German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries suggesting Germany's highly restrictive human embryonic stem cell law should be relaxed have emboldened some scientists who want a more flexible law to speak out for change.

In a speech last week at Berlin's Humboldt University, Zypries suggested that a human embryo outside the womb might not be protected by Germany's constitution, which is the basis for Germany's current restrictive stem cell law. The constitution, influenced by crimes committed by the Nazi government during World War II, affords protection of “human dignity.”

“As long as the embryo is in vitro, it cannot develop as a person if left alone,” Zypries said in her speech. “In my view, the abstract possibility of this kind of development is not sufficient for recognizing the embryo as having human dignity.”

The speech was widely reported in the German press and triggered sharp attacks from church officials physician's groups, and politicians, including members of her own SPD party, which is headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Detlev Ganten, scientific director of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch, told The Scientist that the speech by Zypries was very important. He praised her courage in voicing her opinions publicly. “In Germany, we need more courage in science and in politics,” he said. “[Her speech] has stimulated discussion to a major extent.”

Before the speech, many potential supporters of relaxed stem cell laws remained quietly resigned to the current strict law, which was approved by Parliament last year. But he senses a change now.

“I think her comments have encouraged people like me to speak out,” he said.

Under the current law, which took effect in July 2003, researchers wishing to import embryonic stem cells must apply for approval from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), which is similar to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The law states that only embryonic stem cells that date before January 1, 2002, can be imported into Germany. Other requirements include that stem cells come from so-called “surplus embryos,” produced by in vitro fertilization but not needed for pregnancies, and that couples providing the stem cells were not paid money.

Only seven applications seeking imports had been filed as of the end of October, with five approved and two still pending.

Ganten said that the current law needs to be changed to allow more flexibility for researchers, adding that the January 1, 2002, restriction is one of “the first things that needs to be changed.” German researchers should have access to stem cells produced after that date, he said.

One solution would be for Germany to participate and help finance a European embryonic stem cell bank, Ganten said.

Helmut Matthies, chief executive officer of biotech firm ProteoSys AG, said of Zypries' comments: “This is quite important because it has opened up new discussion about the need for more flexibility in the law.”

ProteoSys submitted one of the five embryonic stem cell applications thus far approved by the Robert Koch Institute. But Matthies thinks Germany's stem cell law needs to be more flexible.

“If we, as a German biotech company, want to compete with American or British companies, then we have to have more or less the same kind of conditions or environment,” he said.

He agreed with Ganten that the January 1, 2002, clause in the current law was too restrictive. He also says the current law needs to be changed to allow commercial applications.

“At the end of the day, our research must be usable in an economic way,” he said.

On the other hand, Wolfgang-Michael Franz, associate professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and also one of the five stem cell import applicants to gain approval, told The Scientist he is satisfied with the current law for the time being.

“Germany has an excellent stem cell law,” he said, adding that he sees little chance of a law made in 2002 being changed a year or two later.

Franz believes that researchers need to first prove that stem cell research will lead to practical medical applications and treatments before the German law becomes more flexible. He also said he hopes that eventually Germany can agree with other European nations in crafting embryonic stem cell regulations.

Spiros Simitis, law professor at the University of Frankfurt and chairman of the National Ethics Council, which helped craft the current stem cell law, agreed with Franz that it is too soon to expect changes in the law.

He said he was satisfied with the current law for the time being, but added that he sees the law as only a temporary solution to a scientific field that is rapidly evolving.

He said of Zypries's speech: “It shows that the debate has not ended, the debate must continue.”