BONN--Germany's main research funding agency issued new guidelines on 3 May that pave the way for researchers to import human embryonic stem cells from other countries. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) also recommended that Parliament pass a law, if needed, that would allow German researchers to derive their own embryonic stem cell lines from surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. "The new guidelines are an important step ahead," says Oliver Bruestle, a stem cell researcher at Bonn University.
Currently, Germany's Embryo Protection Act allows researchers to harvest stem cells from aborted fetuses. But fetal stem cells may not have the same developmental potential as stem cells derived from blastocysts, embryos that are 4 to 7 days old. German law, however, prohibits the derivation of such stem cells from embryos fertilized in vitro.
The new guidelines, unveiled by DFG president Ernst- Ludwig Winnacker and endorsed unanimously by the agency's 39-member senate, will allow scientists to import embryonic stem cells that were derived legally in foreign labs. That's a big change from the DFG's initial guidelines for embryonic stem cell research, issued in March 1999, which counseled scientists to avoid research on human stem cells derived from very young embryos. An independent commission will examine the ethics of research on human embryonic stem cells.
If the import of embryonic stem cells does not satisfy scientific demand, the DFG recommends that Parliament amend the Embryo Protection Act to allow German researchers to derive their own embryonic stem cells for 5 years, hopefully enough time to learn how to manipulate adult stem cells. Such time-limited laws exist elsewhere in Europe, but it's uncertain how Parliament will respond to the recommendation.