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Rules tighten for stem-cell studies

Nature volume 440, page 9 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation

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International group aims to make research collaborations simpler

Researchers have taken a first stab at clearing up the conflicting rules that govern stem-cell research. A panel of more than 50 scientists, journal editors and ethicists have produced guidelines that they hope will promote international collaborations in a field badly shaken by the South Korean cloning scandal.

In Germany, most stem-cell research is illegal, and researchers could in theory be jailed if they participate in embryo experiments abroad. China lacks clear national policies, with different institutes following different rules. Laws also differ between US states. “The situation is likely to get worse,” adds Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem-cell biologist at the National Institute for Medical Research, London, and member of the panel. He says even countries with well-developed laws must continually update them to cope with emerging techniques.

The panel will set up a website where researchers can explain local laws and share existing ethical guidelines. It also wants journal editors to ask authors for more information relating to the ethics of the research they publish, such as the source of cells, to encourage the development of transparent ethical standards.

The group stresses the importance of obeying national laws, but calls on countries such as Germany to reconsider legislation that extends to research elsewhere. “Laws all around the world are stopping international collaboration,” says panel member Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, UK.

The meeting, which took place over 22–24 February in Hinxton, UK, took two years to plan. It was not designed to tackle fraud, such as the case of Woo Suk Hwang, the South Korean scientist who faked data showing stem cells could be extracted from cloned human embryos. But the group does propose that egg donors are treated in the same way as human research subjects, meaning that Hwang's use of eggs from his researchers would probably not have been approved.

The group plans to meet again, probably within two years, to discuss new technologies such as chimaeras.

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