Patient associations and leading research funders have called on the European Parliament to continue EU funding for embryonic stem cell research. The Wellcome Trust issued the group's joint statement last Friday 15th June, ahead of parliamentary debates this week in which MEPs will discuss the EU's next major research and innovation funding programme, 'Horizon 2020'.
Horizon 2020 will be the European Union's major research funding programme from 2014 to 2020. The current draft version of the programme provides for funding of stem cell research, including work on embryonic stem cells. However, the group of patient associations and leading biomedical research funders have spoken out because, 'these provisions are under threat from pro-life MEPs who believe that public funds should not be spent on embryonic stem cell research'.
The joint statement was issued by the Association of Medical Research Charities (UK), the British Heart Foundation, the European Genetic Alliances' Network, the UK's Medical Research Council, Parkinson's UK and the charitable health foundation The Wellcome Trust. Together, they set out the medical, scientific and economic importance of embryonic stem cell research in Europe.
Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said,
"The European Parliament must send a clear sign that it recognises the importance of embryonic stem cell research. While the amount of funding allocated to such research under Horizon 2020 is likely to be only a small portion of the overall budget, to close down such a vital avenue of research would be a massive blow to European science. It will significantly set back research into very serious diseases including Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis and is likely to cost European research its competitive advantage."
Stem cell research has the potential to lead to the development of treatments for many debilitating diseases. Scientists around the world are studying stem cells from several sources - tissue (or adult) stem cells, fetal stem cells and embyronic stem cells. Human embryonic stem cells were first grown in the laboratory by James Thompson in 1998, making research in this area a relatively new field. Whilst progress is being made all the time, and indeed Europe's first clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells has just started in Britain, it will take time to carry out the research needed to harness the potential power of stem cells. The joint statement points out that: 'The field of research is complex. To enable scientists to best understand the massive potential of stem cells, scientists must be able to continue research in all avenues of stem cell research: this includes adult, induced pluripotent, embryonic and fetal stem cells. It is too early to tell which route will be most effective for ultimate clinical use, so it is essential to keep all avenues of research open'.
Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said:
"Any scaling back of the EU's investment would send out a dangerous message that could seriously damage this area of research in Europe, to the detriment of patients in the future. The advances in some of the most promising types of stem cell research in recent years, for example the ability to turn adult skin cells into heart cells, have only been possible through the knowledge gained from embryonic stem cell research. It's only by understanding the molecular processes by which embryonic stem cells become heart cells that we can hope to be able to coax other cells to help repair a damaged heart - an approach which may one day revolutionise treatments for heart patients."
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