Public Release: 

Don't ban embryo-based research says new chairman of European fertility organisation

European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology

Madrid, Spain: The incoming chairman of an organisation representing over 4,000 international fertility experts has urged the EU not to go down the road of attempting to ban research on embryonic stem cells.

Professor Arne Sunde, who takes over tomorrow as chairman of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, told a news briefing today (Monday 30 June) at the society's annual conference, that a ban would severely impede progress in understanding the causes of human infertility and damage prospects of new treatments for serious diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The stem cell controversy has become caught up in proposals by EU Commissioners for an EU-wide directive outlining quality and safety standards for tissue donation testing and distribution. The European Parliament's environment and public health committee, and subsequently European MPs, amended the proposed directive to include a ban on research designed to create human embryos solely for research purposes or to supply stem cells, including stem cells produced by somatic cell transfer (therapeutic cloning). On 2 June, the Council and the majority of ministers disagreed with calls for prohibition to be included in the directive and agreed that member states will be free to maintain, or introduce, their own more stringent measures if they wish. However, opposition from some countries' delegations to embryo-derived stem cells means that there will almost certainly be moves to reinstate the ban at the second reading in Parliament.

Professor Sunde, a cell biologist and laboratory director for the IVF Unit at University Hospital of Trondheim in Norway, said: "Research into non-embryo-based stem cell sources is progressing. Indeed, only today there is a paper published in ESHRE's journal Human Reproduction by Professor Markus Hengstschläger's team[1] from the University of Vienna, providing evidence that it may be possible to derive pluripotent cells from amniotic fluid. In the future, these types of cells and others isolated from adult tissues, may become an important, possibly even the main source for research and treatment, but there is likely always to be a need to use embryo-isolated stems for specific projects."

He said it was still early days and the clinical potential of human embryonic stem cells and transdifferentiated adult stem cell was as yet unknown.

"It's not an either/or situation. Most scientists working with stem cells, whether embryonic or adult, agree that in order to find clinically viable treatments research must continue on both types. Judging from animal experiments, both cell sources may in the future prove useful. There have been spectacular results using embryonic stem cells in animal models of diseases such as Parkinson's and incurable brain tumours."

Professor Sunde said that experiments with human embryonic stem cells would also provide information about the chemical signals that the human body uses to induce stem cells to differentiate into 'local' stem cells. That information would be very useful for attempts to transdifferentiate adult stem cells in vitro.

"Even in a future scenario, where the clinical use of human stem cells is based only on non-embryonic cells, the development of the methods for such use will be facilitated by data from research done on human embryonic stem cells," he said.

He concluded: "ESHRE does understand that the issue of embryonic stem cells is a sensitive one. No one is more aware of that than our members who work with embryos every day. But, my message to those members of the European Parliament who would wish to make embryonic stem cell research illegal, is to talk to the scientific and medical community and to consider very carefully the effect that a ban would have on research and on society's hopes of finding new treatments for some of the most serious and distressing diseases afflicting mankind."

The conference will hear that couples benefiting from assisted reproduction appear to back the use of spare embryos for research.

In Spain, where embryo donation is currently the only legal option for spare viable embryos, 155 questionnaires seeking views on a range of options were completed by couples who currently had embryos frozen. Over 72% would accept their spare embryos being used for research and 54% would agree to destruction if they succeeded in their objective of achieving a pregnancy. Dr Montserrat Boada from Institut Universitari Dexeus of Barcelona said that donation for research was the preferred option for couples if the embryos were not included in a parental plan. Many couples chose research and/or destruction over the legal option. "We need a review on current regulations to solve the increasing number of stored embryos in Spain," she said.

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Abstract no: O-197 (Tuesday 17.15hrs CET, Londres room)

In Denmark two years is the maximum legal time that embryos can be stored. Embryo research for infertility purposes is legal; using embryos for stem cell research or stem cell treatment is banned, although there are legislative initiatives to change the law. A study of infertile couples showed that more than half would agree to donate for research whereas less than a third would agree to donate to other infertile couples. Dr Susanne Bangsboell of the University of Copenhagen analysed the results of a questionnaire answered by 216 couples who had frozen stored embryos disposed of according to present regulations. The majority of infertile patients accepted embryo donation for stem cell research, indicating that legislation was the main limiting factor.

Abstract no: O-196 (Tuesday 17.00hrs CET, Londres room)

[1] Oct-4-expressing cells in human amniotic fluid: a new source for stem cell research? Human Reproduction. Vol. 18. No 7. Pp 1489-1493. [Press release & research paper available from press office]

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