The moratorium banning embryonic stem cell research in France – with a possibility of getting derogations from the Biomedicine Agency – was due to end in February 2011. Five month of debate followed in the French parliament’s chambers leading to adopt a law within the guidelines of the French Government. Since the adoption of the Bioethics law (June 23, 2011), the ban on embryonic stem cell research, and the system of derogation are maintained, with a compulsory additional revision within the next seven years.
Research on human supernumerary embryo is feasible since over 30 years. The French legislation ruled two consecutive times on the ethical questions related to embryo research. In 1994, the law forbids strictly human embryo research in France. In 2004, a possible derogation to the law became possible – on case-to-case basis – with a 5-years moratorium (initiated on Feb 2006). The French bioethics law (including the embryo act) started to be revised on February 2011 and were resulting in a legal “no man’s land” where no new authorization were be given until the approval of the text.
Embryonic stem cells are obtained from early embryos (between 5.5 and 7.5 days of development post-fertilization). They have been first derived in the USA in 1998, seven years before the 1st research authorization given to a French laboratory.
Their main applications are :
- Cell therapy or regenerative medicine : cell transplant restoring lost functions of a tissue or an organ, due to disease or accident.
- Pathological modeling and pharmaceutical screening : provide tools to establish a cell model of a disease, aiming at a better understanding of its mechanisms and helping to identify molecules that reduce the symptoms; potential new drugs.
During the debate, two arguments were used to turn the Members of Parlement’s positions in the National Assembly, both scientifically false:
- “Embryonic stem cell work would have been unfruitful “
In only a decade (yesterday for research timescale) two clinical trials have been initiated in the USA (on back bone lesions and retinal diseases) and several are under regulatory agencies evaluation in France and Europe.
- “Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) would make redundant embryonic stem cell research“
iPS discovery is universally recognized as a major breakthrough in the field. Those cells are adult cells that are forced to behave as embryonic stem cells through genetic manipulation. In particular, they open the possibility to study diseases for which there are no embryonic stem cell lines available. However, any data obtained from iPS is a combination of effects of the disease’s genetic mutation and the recombination-related genetic modifications (often random). In consequence, with the current scientific knowledge, it can only be a backup choice – in absence of embryonic stem cell model.