The European Union has agreed to continue funding stem-cell research in a move that supporters said would give Europe a cutting edge over the United States, whose federal government opposes the technology.
After an impassioned debate, critics of stem-cell research backed down when they won an explicit pledge that European cash would not be used for the phase of work that involves the destruction of human embryos. Backers of the pioneering genetic technology said this simply stated current practice in EU-backed scientific work. They contrasted yesterday's decision with that of George Bush, who last week used his first presidential veto against a bill that would have expanded such work in the US.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the British science minister, said that the two developments could produce a limited, reverse, transatlantic brain drain. "Symbolically it is very significant. In Europe we are moving forward on this front whereas America has taken - as far as the federal government is concerned - a very negative position," he said. "There is a group of American scientists who are very disillusioned. If America continues to take this very negative position I think, within this field of regenerative medicine, we will see scientists come from America - and from other parts of the world who would have gone to America - to the UK instead."
Supporters of stem-cell research believe it is vital in the battle to find cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But the technology has caused concern in several predominantly Roman Catholic nations, and in Germany and Austria where genetic experimentation has uncomfortable associations with the Nazi era.
Yesterday the issue came to a head as EU ministers struggled to agree a €50.5bn (£27.3bn) research package for 2007-13. Stem-cell work would gain only a fraction of that spending, perhaps 0.4 per cent of the €6bn allocated to health projects.
Nevertheless, yesterday's meeting, which was open to the cameras, produced an unusually passionate debate as a bloc of around eight conservative countries clashed with a more liberal majority.
Annette Schavan, the German science minister, said: "We have got to do something that will conserve broad support for human life from its conception. The EU science programme should not be used to offer financial incentives to kill embryos."
That position was backed by Austria's minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, who said: "Do we really want 300 to 400 fertilised human embryos to be destroyed to create stem cells? This destruction of human embryos to create stem cell lines is not something we can support."
Her Portuguese counterpart, Jose Mariano Gago, retorted: "I hope that none of the colleagues will ever need treatment which does not yet exist for dementia and Alzheimer's. These are treatments which could be made possible by research with stem cells. If you find yourself in such a position I hope you would be able to say you did not stand in the way of such research." After a deal was struck, Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for science and research, said that the concession made to Germany and its allies simply underlined existing practice.
The use of embryos left over from fertility treatment and earmarked for disposal will be permitted.
Mauri Pekkarinen, the industry minister of Finland, which holds the EU presidency, added: "We took a little bit of a risk when we decided to organise this extraordinary meeting today but I am pleased to say that risk paid off."Reuse content