An ethical dispute over whether to fund experiments on cells taken from embryos has split the European Union and plunged the scientific community into confusion.
At a meeting in Brussels yesterday, ministers reached an impasse, leaving the official policy in limbo. Their failure to agree guidelines raises doubts about the ability of European scientists to compete with the United States in the race to find cures for several diseases.
Under complex rules, the European Commission could now force through funding for research projects on stem cells, but it remained unclear yesterday whether it has the political stomach to do so.
Proponents of the techniques hope, once the public furore has died away, individual projects will be approved on a case-by-case basis.
Yesterday's breakdown was the climax of a fiercely contested debate on whether to end a moratorium on the use of tens of millions of euros for stem cell work from €17bn (£12bn) available for EU research. Domestic legislation in individual countries is not affected. Countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden see the science as a vital in finding solutions to diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But in nations where the Catholic church has a strong grip there is bitter opposition.
Stem cells can be harvested from aborted embryos, those produced by in-vitro fertilisation or cloned specially. Many opponents of abortion see the technique as unacceptable. The US, the global leader in biotechnology research, has banned the use of stem cells produced after 2001 in an attempt to stop the production of new cultures. The Commission had proposed a cut-off point of June 2002, but some countries viewed this as too liberal.
Most diplomats believe that, if there are deep divisions, the European Commission will not use its powers to the full. German officials, who led the opposition, said that they expected the Commission to keep the moratorium while negotiations continued.
Mary Harney, Ireland's Enterprise Minister and Deputy Premier, dismissed the prospect of getting a deal during the Irish presidency of the EU, which starts in January. "There is no point in my holding out any hope of resolving it," she said.