May 31, 2006

Italian Minister in Storm Over Stem Cell Research

By Philip Pullella

ROME -- A move by the new center-left government suggesting it might break with the conservative past by favoring embryonic stem cell research caused a political storm in Italy on Wednesday.

Research Minister Fabio Mussi said in Brussels on Tuesday he had withdrawn Italy's signature from a "declaration of ethics" which Rome and other countries made in November.

The declaration, signed under the center-right government of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, objected to using EU funds for embryonic stem cell research and created a "blocking minority" on the release of EU money for some research projects.

Some opposition politicians called on Wednesday for a parliamentary vote of no confidence against Mussi and demanded to know if he had the backing of all of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government.

One opposition leader, Maurizio Gasparri, said it showed that ministers of the new government acted like "stray dogs" who did as they please.

Mussi also came under attack from the Roman Catholic Church.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, said it was "shocking" that Mussi could have taken such a step without greater consultation with other political forces.

Human stem cells can develop into any cell type. Scientists believe they could be used as a repair system for many parts of the body.

Their use is controversial because the most promising stem cells for treating human diseases are derived from very early human embryos left over from fertility treatments.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of embryos.


Last June, a referendum that had aimed to loosen up Italy's tight law on assisted procreation and embryo research failed after the church campaigned against it.

"A government minister has the duty to defend the legislation of his country," said Rocco Buttiglione, a former minister in the Berlusconi government, referring to the law upheld by the referendum.

Mussi said he had removed Rome's signature from the declaration because he felt Italy should not take "a position of total closure to experimentation and research" in Europe.

Without Italy, the remaining EU member states opposed to using stem cells in research -- Germany, Malta, Slovakia, Poland and Austria -- would not be able to muster enough votes to stop other member states from adopting an EU-wide policy.

In Brussels, Italy's move was seen as a signal of what the EU's new research program covering 2007-2013 will contain.

Under the current program there is no general policy but permission for individual projects using human stem cells is granted by a committee on a case-by-case basis.

Eight projects have been approved, with a ninth in the pipeline. The EU executive wants the case-by-case system to be continued in the new 7-year program.

(Additional reporting by Huw Jones in Brussels)