Brazil's top court OKs embryonic cell research

BRASILIA, May 29 (Reuters) - Brazil's Supreme Court upheld on Thursday legislation that allows research on embryonic stem cells in the world's largest Roman Catholic country, where church groups staunchly oppose the practice.

Six of the 11 judges voted to uphold the 2005 law. The other five, including the court's president, had favored putting restrictions on the law.

In 2005, Brazil became the first Latin American country to legalize research with embryonic stem cells. But scientists complain that most new research has been on hold since the country's then chief prosecutor questioned the biotechnology law before the Supreme Court the same year.

Church groups argue the research is unethical and destroys living embryos, while supporters including the government say stem cells offer the potential to regenerate damaged organs and treat diseases such as diabetes.

"It is a victory of knowledge over obscurantism," president of the National Bar Association, Cezar Britto, said in a statement, calling the court's ruling "historic."

The Brazilian National Conference of Bishops said in a statement the ruling was "lamentable" and that it will "continue its work in favor of life."

Scientists say Brazil has fallen behind in stem cell research because of the legal uncertainty even though it has great scientific potential in the field.

The bishops group, which is the country's top Roman Catholic Church body, argues that adult stem cells taken from the patient are a more viable alternative.

The conference said "it is not a religious matter but a question of promoting and defending human life starting from conception."

Earlier, the group said destroying and manipulating an embryo to use its cells "isn't much different from selling children to use their organs."

The legislation permits research on stem cells drawn from embryos frozen for at least three years and considered unsuitable for human reproduction. These embryos would eventually be discarded, the Health Ministry said.

The government has financed research using stem cells drawn from embryos, as well as spinal and umbilical cords.

Around 25 countries, including Japan, Australia, and Canada, have approved embryonic stem cell research, according to Brazil's Health Ministry. Spain, another major Catholic country, allowed embryonic stem cell research in 2004, according to the ministry. (Reporting by Eduardo Simoes and Andrei Khalip; editing by Mohammad Zargham)