Published online 18 January 2011 | Nature 469, 277 (2011) | doi:10.1038/469277a


France mulls embryo research reform

Scientists and clinicians push for a clearer, more permissive law on human embryonic stem-cell work.

France's tight restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research might soon be eased. As parliament prepares to debate the issue next month, Nature has learned that researchers' calls for reform are garnering political support.

Click for a plain text version.F. RUGGERI/ALAMY; Y. NIKAS/SPL

Officially, research on human ESCs and embryos is banned in France. But under a 2004 amendment to the country's bioethics law, scientists can obtain dispensation for research that could lead to "major therapeutic progress" for serious diseases that resist other approaches. Those whose research fits the bill — about 30 research groups and 40 projects so far — can carry out research on whole embryos, or on cell lines derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF). Creating embryos for research purposes is illegal in the country, a position that enjoys a broad consensus among scientists, politicians and public alike.

Scientists concede that the 2004 compromise has been a great improvement on the previous outright ban. But it still left uncertainty over the regulatory status of ESCs in France. This uncertainty is a deterrent to foreign researchers and investment by companies, says Marc Peschanski, a neuroscientist working for INSERM, the national biomedical research agency, and head of the Institute for Stem Cell Therapy and Exploration of Monogenic Diseases in Evry, outside Paris. Axel Kahn, a renowned INSERM geneticist and president of the University of Paris-Descartes, calls the current law "an intellectual absurdity and a legal quirk".

A broad consensus of researchers and clinicians is now urging the government to overturn the ban, and to explicitly authorize research on ESCs and whole embryos without the need for any special dispensation.

The law is ripe for reform, says Philippe Menasché, a cardiovascular surgeon working for INSERM at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris, where his team is researching stem cells as a potential therapy for heart disorders. Conservative politicians' opposition to all forms of embryo research was so fierce in 2004 that most researchers were grateful for any progress, he recalls, but political and ideological resistance has now largely abated.

“After five years without any apparent abuses, politicians are more comfortable with the work.”

The government's draft revised bill, released last October, would maintain the existing system. But last week, a source close to the science ministry told Nature that the ministry will back the explicit authorization of ESC research. After five years without any apparent abuses, politicians are more comfortable with the work, he says. The successful oversight of the national Biomedicine Agency, set up in 2004 to regulate human embryology, genetics and IVF, has had a critical role in inspiring confidence, he adds.

The science ministry is holding off from taking a position on the more controversial issue of research on whole embryos, says the ministry source, preferring to wait until it has heard the views of parliament next month.

Some scientists, including Menasché and Peschanski, say they would be satisfied with a more permissive law on only ESCs, a position that has support among parliamentarians, adds Menasché. But other scientists, including Kahn, point out that ESCs are just one aspect of embryo research, and they are pushing for a more complete authorization that includes all forms of such research. This view was endorsed by the influential bipartisan Parliamentary Office for Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Options last July, and by the Conseil d'État, one of the three arms of the country's supreme court system, in a May 2009 report requested by Prime Minister François Fillon.


The outcome of next month's debate is "unpredictable", says Menasché. The government may decide to take the low-risk approach of maintaining the status quo, and any bill must also be approved by the highly conservative Senate. A key factor will be the recommendations of a cross-party parliamentary commission set up to examine the draft bill. Having heard testimony from researchers, it is scheduled to release its report later this month. A source says that the commission is currently "very divided". 

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