Swiss support stem cells

Voter backing for a law allowing extraction of ES cells seen as boost to Swiss science

Nov 29, 2004
Ned Stafford(

Voters in Switzerland on Sunday (November 28) overwhelmingly supported a new law already approved by Parliament that will allow extraction of stem cells human embryos up to 7 days old to be used for research.

The law, approved last December by the Swiss Parliament, was challenged by the Green Party and by anti-abortion groups, who collected enough signatures to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. On Sunday, 66.4% of voters backed the new law after an aggressive campaign by the government the past 2 months encouraging citizens to vote in support of the law, which will take effect in March.

Anita Holler, scientific collaborator with the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, told The Scientist: "We are very pleased that the majority of the Swiss population accepted the law on human embryonic stem cells. We rate the clear result as a positive indication for Switzerland as a science center."

The new law is stricter than the original bill proposed in Parliament. That original proposal would have allowed not only extraction of embryonic stem cells, but also the creation of embryos via therapeutic cloning. But fierce opposition led to a political compromise that removed the clause pertaining to cloning.

Under the new law, both parents would need to give written permission that the surplus embryo could be used for research, and only embryos up to 7 days old could be used for stem cell extraction. Currently, such surplus embryos are destroyed. The Swiss law would also allow import of embryonic stem cells.

The impetus for the law came in 2000, when Marisa Jaconi of University Hospital in Geneva submitted a grant application for research requiring import of human embryonic stem cells.

Jaconi and her team are still the only researchers in Switzerland working with embryonic stem cells. She told The Scientist she was extremely pleased with the approval on Sunday of the new law. "For us, it is a legitimization of our research," she said. "Switzerland is a democracy, and we have the support of the people. It's a demonstration of trust."

Jaconi praised Swiss politicians for reacting so quickly in crafting and approving a new law on such a controversial issue. "I think never in the history of Switzerland has a law been debated, written, and passed so fast," she quipped.

Jaconi said she was especially thankful that Swiss politicians did not follow in the steps of Germany, whose new law bans domestic production of embryonic stem cells but allows import of embryonic stem cells created before January 1, 2002. She said the German law basically allows the "dirty work" of producing embryonic stem cells to be done in other countries.

"The German law is hypocritical," Jaconi said. "It allows the import of embryonic stem cells, but not the production.

Jaconi believes it will be at least 1 to 2 years before embryonic stem cells will be produced in Switzerland. "We do not yet have the know-how, so we will have to learn this in other countries," she said.

Jaconi said she would prefer that Swiss scientists learn the process within Europe, with likely destinations Sweden, the United Kingdom, and France. She said that although her team uses embryonic stem cells produced by James A. Thomson at the University of Wisconsin, she does not see the United States as a good training ground for Swiss scientists because of the Bush administration's opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

Felix Gutzwiller, a Member of Parliament who helped draft the new law, told The Scientist that Sunday's public support sends a signal that Switzerland will continue to strive to remain a global bioscience leader. He said bioscience was one of Switzerland's four top economic engines, with the others being pharmaceuticals, banking, and tourism.

Gutzwiller said that "four or five" research groups have signaled readiness to begin embryonic stem cell research, pending the outcome of Sunday's referendum. Of the 20 researchers currently focusing on adult stem cells, he believes that within a few years at least half will begin embryonic stem cell research.