March 3, 2005

Brazil Lawmakers Legalize Stem Cell Research

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) -- As Brazilians in wheelchairs cheered, legislators voted to legalize stem cell research using human embryos - offering hope of one day finding treatments for ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.

Reversing an earlier decision, the lower house of Congress voted 352 to 60 late Wednesday to permit research with embryos resulting from in-vitro fertilization and frozen for at least three years.

The bill now goes to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is expected to sign it into law.

Scientists and patients hailed the vote as a breakthrough.

"It's the regenerative era," Dr. Paulo Niemeyer, a renowned neurosurgeon, said Thursday in a televised interview. "Will this work? I don't know. But it's new, and this is our great hope."

Brazilians in wheelchairs also gathered in Congress to urge legislators to pass the bill. Many wore T-shirts that said, in Portuguese: "Stem cells - Hope."

"We've waited for this for a long time, and only now were we able to change their minds," Carolina Sanches, who has a neuromuscular disease and uses a wheelchair, told the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo.

Legislators upheld a ban on the cloning of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic use, as well as on human cloning. But Brazil has a stock of some 20,000 frozen embryos from fertility clinics, enough for five years of research, Sen. Osmar Dias said.

Brazil's Roman Catholic Church lamented the decision as a violation of the sanctity of human life. About 70 percent of Brazil's 183 million people are Catholic.

"It's a day for us to weep, because it opens the gates to offend human dignity," said Cardinal Geraldo Majella, president of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference. "It's a sad day, not only for the church, but for mankind. Today we open the door to kill embryos - what will pass tomorrow?"

Government figures show that some 10 million Brazilians have diabetes and 14.5 million have serious disabilities that may benefit from stem cell research.

Stem cells are found in bone marrow, the umbilical cord and in embryos. The embryonic cells are more flexible and can reproduce any tissue with little risk of rejection, said Mayana Zatz, coordinator of the Center of Human Genome Studies at the University of Sao Paulo.

"Not for me, but for children 2 or 3 years old, who will die from muscular dystrophy" or other diseases, said neurologist Izabel Maior of the government's Human Rights Office, who uses a wheelchair since a car accident 22 years ago.

"It won't be today or tomorrow, but maybe in a decade those children won't die," she said. "That's what matters: saving lives."

Stem cell research is part of a vast biosecurity bill, which also created a framework to legalize biotech seed sales. Environmentalists had fought the bill, which could allow U.S.-based biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. (MON) to sell genetically modified soy seeds in Brazil, the world's No. 2 soy producer after the United States.