Germany's strict laws governing human embryonic stem (ES) cells are no longer appropriate and need to be relaxed, says the country's main funding agency, the DFG.

Backing its arguments with an 80-page report released on 10 November, the DFG argues that its previous support for a cautious approach is no longer valid.

Annette Schavan is against changing Germany's rules. Credit: T. SCHWARZ/REUTERS

When the DFG speaks, politicians listen, and a parliamentary debate is now likely. But federal research minister Annette Schavan, a Christian Democrat, swiftly rejected any fundamental change to the rules, which forbid German researchers from working on human ES cell lines created after January 2002. The penalty for doing so, either in or outside Germany, is up to three years in prison.

The DFG calls for three changes to the law. First, that the cut-off date be removed to give researchers access to the newer, better stem-cell lines used in other countries. Second, that human ES cell lines be allowed to be imported for clinical as well as research purposes. And third, that the threat of punishment for German researchers working abroad be lifted.

Despite Schavan's rejection of the recommendations, there are splits on the issue for the first time in both her party and its sister party, the Christian Socialists, with some members calling for the cut-off date to be abolished. The Social Democrat coalition partner and the opposition Free Democrats are also split.

In previous statements in 1999 and 2001, the DFG called for continuing public debate about the possible benefits and limitations of stem-cell research, and for further research into the potential of adult stem cells to provide an alternative source of cells capable of generating different types of tissue. Its current report acknowledges that the past five years of international research has not only cast doubt on the potential of adult stem cells, but has also made clinical applications of human ES cells foreseeable. German researchers are being left behind, the report says, and isolated further by a reluctance abroad to include German researchers on international stem-cell committees for fear they may be prosecuted at home.

The outcome of the debate is uncertain, but politicians are broadly supportive of decriminalizing research on human ES cells by German scientists in countries where it is allowed.

Responding to the DFG's report, Schavan also promised to launch “in the near future” a research programme for alternatives to human ES cells. But this just annoyed researchers more. “This top-down attempt to provide alternatives has been the ministry's line since the beginning, and has been shown not to work,” says Oliver Brüstle, head of the Institute for Reconstructive Neurobiology at the University of Bonn, one of the DFG report's 12 authors. “It will be extremely dangerous to ignore international developments,” he warns.