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German ethics body recommends easing stem cell law

BERLIN (Reuters) - A body that advises the German government on medical ethics on Monday recommended changing the law to make stem cell research easier, a view that could boost the chances of new legislation.

The National Ethics Council voted narrowly in favor of changes to existing laws, which scientists say prevent them keeping up with global advances.

After a heated debate in 2002, parliament decided to ban the production of embryonic cells from pre-existing stem cell lines.

To ensure foreign laboratories did not produce stem cell lines for the German market, it barred German scientists from working on any lines created after January 1, 2002.

The German Research Society DFG has complained about the laws, which are stricter than in many other Western countries.

The matter divides Germany where genetic research is a sensitive subject because of Nazi experiments with creating a master race.

The National Ethics Council said 14 of its 24 members had voted in favor of abolishing the cut-off date and favored setting up an authority to test each case individually instead.

“If the current rules remain, German science will be hopelessly sidelined,” said Horst Dreier, speaking for the 14 members who favor changing the law.

The majority also said any new law should state that the import of stem cells should come from widely accessible sources and that manufacturers should not be seeking to make a profit.

The Council called for an end to penalties for scientists involved in international projects using stem cells.

Stem cells offer the potential to treat conditions such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease and to regenerate damaged organs, say scientists. They say cells taken from days-old human embryos seem to be the most promising.

The DFG supported the Council’s position.

“This will provide a positive impulse for stem cell research in Germany,” DFG Vice President Joerg Hinrich Hacker said.

However, those who believe life begins at conception say cells should be harvested from adults, not embryos. The German Bishops’ Conference warned against softening the law.

“We must not subordinate the protection of life to the freedom of research,” the Catholic body said.