The European Parliament is currently debating the provisions of Horizon 2020, the EU's programme for research and innovation running from 2014 to 2020. Provisions in the draft regulation provide for the funding of stem cell research including embryonic stem cell research, which is currently allowed under the existing Framework Programme 7. However, these provisions are under threat from pro-life MEPs who believe that public funds should not be spent on embryonic stem cell research.
Stem cell research has important potential for the development of new treatments for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's and motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular conditions, liver damage, spinal cord damage, and blindness. Many of the conditions that stem cell therapies might treat are neurodegenerative conditions, the prevalence of which will increase with an ageing population (as Europe is facing).
Europe and the UK are currently world leaders in stem cell research, and it is important to maintain funding for all avenues of stem cell research to maintain this competitive edge and move closer to the development of treatments. Three main types of stem cell are currently used in research: adult induced pluripotent, embryonic and fetal stem cells. It is too early yet to determine which route will be the most effective for ultimate clinical use, so it is essential to keep all avenues of research open.
The Association of Medical Research Charities, British Heart Foundation, the European Genetic Alliances' Network, Medical Research Council, Parkinson's UK and Wellcome Trust have all signed a joint statement that has been sent to MEPs with an interest in science and medicine and to members of the Industry, Research and Energy Committee, and the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee.
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."
Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, says: "Stem cell research holds a great deal of promise for patients suffering from a broad range of incurable diseases. It's absolutely vital that European Commission funding for this research is maintained. European scientists are leading the way in this field and the first clinical trial of a human embryonic stem cell treatment for a form of blindness has recently received regulatory approval in the UK. To derail such promising science based on the objections of a minority of member states, who do not wish their scientists to carry out this research, would be unwise and unfair, particularly to patients."
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."
Sharmila Nebhrajani, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said: "The UK is a world leader in stem cell science and charities are key funders of this research, investing alongside other public and private funders. The money they invest comes from patients, carers and their families, who donate in the hope of finding treatments for some of the most debilitating conditions. Patients want and need this vital stem cell research to continue and call upon the EU to continue to support this research."
Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research and Innovation at Parkinson's UK, said: "Stem cells have great potential for the treatment of Parkinson's in the future. It is vital that we keep this avenue of research open to ensure that all areas of stem cell research are explored. By raising a barrier to future research in this area, we will slow down the development of stem cell technology and this could prevent the development of better treatments for people with Parkinson's, which would bring us closer to our ultimate goal of a cure for the condition."