Research on human embryonic stem cells – a shaky future marked by murky decisions
A Rome – Human stem cell research has become something of a studia non grata in Italian politics. Research into human embryonic stem cells was explicitly excluded from a recent call for proposals to fund stem-cell biology. Three scientists subsequently appealed against the exclusion, but lost the first round in court. This could mark the starting point of a lengthy legal battle to define the future of embryonic stem cell research in Italy. Just three days before the deadline for submitting grant proposals on July 20th, an administrative court in Rome backed up the government position and rejected the scientists’ appeal.
Political support for stem cell research in Italy has a turbulent history. In 2007, then health minister Livia Turco cancelled a a3m fund after complaints about the nontransparent distribution of the monies. After some squabbling, Turoc agreed to set up a new a8m fund, and to guarantee proper reviewing procedures. In spring of last year, after the ruling centre-left government lost to the coalition headed by Silvio Berlusconi, Turco’s successor Ferrucio Fazio promised to continue the fund.
A committee of five experts was then established to formulate a call for projects. Giulio Cossu, a developmental biologist at the San Raffaele scientific institute in Milan and one of the committee members, says that the group formulated a text that included every type of stem-cell proposal.
The mystery of who wrote what
But when the proposal was published, a sentence had been added explicitly excluding projects involving human embryonic stem cells. The proposal appeared online after a February meeting of Italy’s State-Regions Conference. Made up of representatives from the 20 Italian regions, that body decides how national health funds are distributed. In media interviews, Fazio dismissed rumours in spring that the sentence had been added by someone within his ministry. He insisted that the sentence had been added by the regions.
Elena Cattaneo from the University of Milan, along with Elisabetta Cerbai from the University of Florence and Silvia Garagna from the University of Pavia, filed a lawsuit that was rejected by a court in Rome on formal grounds. The judges noted that only institutional recipients of the funding – like regional councils and universities – are allowed to appeal against the government. Individual researchers, they said, don’t have that option.
The Italian law that regulates in vitro fertilisation (Legge 40) forbids the creation of new cell lines from embryos for scientific purposes, but does not prevent researchers from studying them. Cattaneo’s lawyer, Vittorio Angiolini, told the magazine Science that the next move will be to appeal to a higher Italian court, the State Council. He said he believes that the judges’ decision is by no means justified from a legal perspective.