A coalition of UK and European biomedical research funders and patient groups has urged the European Parliament, the European Commission and EU member states to keep up public funding for all forms of stem-cell research in the face of ethical objections.

“To maintain its global edge in this area of research, Europe must ensure all avenues of stem cell research continue to be financially supported,” says the joint statement sent to MEPs with an interest in science and medicine and to members of Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee and its Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee.

“Europe’s strengths in this field present valuable opportunities to attract skilled scientists, biopharmaceutical companies and international investment in stem-cell research to Europe, to drive the translation of basic research towards clinical benefits, and to influence the international agenda,” the coalition argues.

The move by the Association of Medical Research Charities, the British Heart Foundation, the European Genetic Alliances’ Network, the Medical Research Council, Parkinson’s UK and the Wellcome Trust comes as the European Parliament debates Horizon 2020, the European Union’s programme for research and innovation that will run from 2014 to 2020.

Provisions in the draft regulation allow for the funding of stem-cell research, including embryonic stem-cell research. This is also permitted under the EU’s existing Seventh Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration activities (FP7), which runs from 2007 to 2013.

“However, these provisions are under threat from pro-life MEPs who believe that public funds should not be spent on embryonic stem cell research,” the coalition asserts.

Too early to choose

Outlining the three main types of stem cell currently used in research – adult induced pluripotent (iPS), embryonic and fetal stem cells – the coalition insists it is too early yet to determine which route will prove the most effective for clinical use.

Therefore, “it is essential to keep all avenues of research open”, the organisations say.  

The European Parliament “must send a clear sign that it recognises the importance of embryonic stem cell research”, commented Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

“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,” he warned.

“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.”

Among the coalition’s specific arguments for preserving public funding for human embryonic stem-cell (hES) research are:

•    Safety/function. hES cells are normal human embryonic cells, whereas iPS and transdifferentiated cells are created by reprogramming adult cells using molecular engineering. As such, there are “subtle but important differences in the behaviours of these different cell types, most likely reflecting epigenetic differences that are not fully understood”, the statement reads.

More critically, the coalition adds, the engineering technologies currently used to    create iPS cells “do not leave them safe enough to transplant into people”.    Therefore, hES cells are needed to test the safety and differentiation of iPS cell therapies as they are being developed.

•  Clinical readiness. A number of regenerative therapies based on adult stem cells are in clinical testing, but these “offer promise in a limited number of disease areas, given the restricted ability of such cells to differentiate into other tissue types”.

While iPS cells present a much greater range of possibilities for regenerative    medicine, as well as potential for unlimited supplies of donor cell, “issues    remain” over their suitability for transplantation into humans, the coalition emphasises.

By contrast, over  the past 12 months hES cell-derived therapies have successfully achieved regulatory approval for use in clinical trials to treat age-related macular degeneration in the EU and the US, and for spinal cord injury in the US, the statement notes.

•    Discovery and innovation. It is “noteworthy that the basis of iPS cell technology is entirely based on our understanding of human embryonic stem cell biology, and that the potential for new innovations in the field will best be maintained through encouraging parallel approaches in stem-cell discovery science”, the coalition comments.