6th Dec 2022

Embryo-cell vote spotlights MEPs' ethics

MEPs are divided over EU rules on new types of treatment for diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer's, with conservative deputies calling for safeguards against medicines developed through embryonic stem cell research, a practice that is illegal in some countries.

After a series of delays, the European Parliament is set to vote on Wednesday (25 April) on the new EU regulation on so called "advanced therapies" - gene therapy, adult stem cell therapy and tissue engineering.

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  • Brussels argues the new rules will boost further European research in modern medical therapies (Photo: Notat)

All three of them are based on the principle of replacing the abnormal body parts (genes, cells or tissues) affected by various diseases with healthy ones.

The stem cell therapy is the most controversial as it can involve cells being extracted from human embryos - a practise illegal in some countries, such as Poland and Italy.

Still, experts argue that it is crucial for the treatment of blindness, spinal cord injury, as well as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

At the moment, rules on the authorisation of the new therapies vary across the EU's 27 member states and most stakeholders claim that such differences hamper research and prevent access for patients from some countries to modern medical treatment which could save their lives.

Question marks over embryonic cells

But the new draft legislation with common criteria for registering the therapies and medicines they are using has sparked controversy in the EU legislature.

The main dispute centres on an argument that treatments based on products from embryonic stem cells should not be allowed to be registered at the EU level.

This condition has been incorporated in the report of the Slovak centre-right deputy Miroslav Mikolasik which was agreed by the environment committee in January.

However, the EU executive and the German presidency do not support such a ban and instead back a compromise package proposed by MEPs from the socialist, liberal and leftist GUE/NGL groups which allows EU registration for all products and leaves it up to member states to decide whether to approve them at national level.

Speaking to the Strasbourg plenary on Monday (23 April), industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen urged deputies to support the compromise and allow a swift adoption of the new rules.

"When a solution to ethical issues doesn't gather a full support we should resort to tolerance and respect," he said, adding that at the EU level "we can't tolerate a grey area."

But Mr Mikolasik claimed such a solution could lead to a situation where certain products would not have access to the whole EU market which could be ruled illegal by the EU courts, with countries later being forced to accept medical products "which they consider ethically unacceptable."

"We would de facto send a signal that embryonal stem cells research is approved in Europe," he said.

His concerns were rejected by both the commission, the German presidency and other political groups, however.

Belgian liberal deputy Frederique Ries suggested that Mr Mikolasik and some MEPs from the conservative group were "try[ing] to impose their ethics on others."

The centre-right EPP-ED is also divided and is set to decide today (24 April) on which stance to take on Wednesday (25 April) when the assembly votes on the proposal.

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