BERLIN--Working with finicky human embryonic stem (ES) cells is tricky business. But for German university professors it might also be risky business: Conducting research with newly derived human ES cell lines could land them in prison even if the work is done outside Germany, warns the DFG, Germany's main science-funding agency.
ES cells are prized by researchers for their ability to become any cell type in the body--a talent scientists hope to exploit to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. The cells have stirred controversy, though, because they are derived from early human embryos. A German law on the books since 1990 bans any research that harms an embryo, so deriving new cell lines here is prohibited; a law passed last year bans work with lines derived after 1 January 2002. Anyone caught breaking either law could face up to 3 years in jail.
But the stem-cell law was unclear about whether researchers could be prosecuted for participating in forbidden research in foreign labs. (Many European countries have less restrictive laws.) To better advise its grantees, the DFG in September asked a team of law scholars to clarify the situation.
Their study, released on 16 July, paints a mixed picture. German researchers abroad who are paid by a non-German employer are not bound by the law, the study concluded, and most German researchers--no matter who employs them--are free to review or advise on foreign projects that would be verboten in Germany. But because German professors and research assistants are government employees, they are subject to a law stipulating that public officials adhere to German regulations anywhere in the world. That means a university researcher could land in court--and in jail--for working in a lab where newly derived stem cell lines are used, says Bonn lawyer Bernd Müssig, an author of the report. To avoid prosecution, professors would need to take an official leave of absence during any such stint abroad.
It's unclear whether employees of Germany's nonuniversity research outfits--such as the Max Planck institutes--count as public officials under the law. Such a distinction would probably only be determined in court, Müssig says. He advises any researcher at a state-supported institute to take a leave of absence rather than test the long arm of German stem cell law.