A Crisis Of Biotech

The package that Wolfgang Franz received at his laboratory at the University of Lubeck was nondescript, but the contents were explosive. The molecular biologist had ordered a sample of 100,000 or so stem cells to use in his medical experiments. In particular, he wanted to find out if the cells could be used to repair heart damage from cardiac arrest. But now it looks like he won't get a chance, at least not soon. Word of the shipment got out and immediately ignited a controversy. Last week the German government called for a voluntary halt to all research involving human embryonic tissue--including stem cells. Under that kind of pressure, Franz had no choice but to put his stem cells in liquid-nitrogen storage and his research on ice.

In Germany, embryos are protected under one of the strictest such laws in the world: the 1990 Embryonenschutzgesetz--embryo-protection law. It says that life begins at conception and that every fertilized egg has a right to survive. Since stem cells are harvested from human embryos only a few days old, producing them is illegal in Germany. Scientists have turned to outside firms for the cells they need. Franz, for instance, got his from WiCell, a Wisconsin-based company. Even though Franz and his colleagues have broken no laws, the issue is so controversial that they have tried to keep quiet about the practice.

It's easy to see why. Once the news got out, the scientists got some heavy flak. They were guilty of a "shameless gold-digger mentality" and "Wild West manners," said Thomas Goppel, a conservative firebrand from the Christian Social Union Party. As in many countries across Europe, a strange alliance of conservative Christians and technophobic Greens has maintained that destroying embryos even a few days old to harvest stem cells is immoral. Corporate leaders and the socialist government respond that the technology could save millions of lives and would be a boon for business. In Germany, the debate is also overshadowed by painful memories of the Nazis' genetic experiments in World War II. Afraid of drawing fire from religious leaders and conservative politicians, the government has passed the issue to a newly commissioned National Ethics Council that won't make its recommendation until October.

As the German debate goes on, competitors in other countries are getting a jump on the research. In Britain, Parliament gave the go-ahead to stem-cell production and research last January, ruling that human life doesn't start until an embryo is 14 days old. Since then laboratories like the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh that produced sheep clone Dolly four years ago have been expanding their facilities to move aggressively into stem-cell research. In Israel, where Jewish tradition says an embryo doesn't become human until it's nestled in the mother's womb, Haifa's Rambam Medical Center has taken a lead in stem-cell research and export. In the United States, existing projects are going ahead even as the Congress considers a ban on federal funding for stem-cell research. And the French government is considering a law banning the production of stem cells but allowing research to continue.

The progress abroad only frustrates German scientists all the more. "Now we're falling behind," says Oliver Brustle, a University of Bonn scientist who made medical history when he proved that stem cells could cure multiple sclerosis in rats: "It's a sad situation for us." To see if the same treatment might work in humans, he had arranged to import stem cells from Haifa. Now a government agency that oversees university research has put his work on hold.

Under pressure from investors, private biotech companies can ill afford to wait. Cardion, a Dusseldorf-based company developing treatments for heart disorders, has established a genetic-research subsidiary in Boston, in part to circumvent German regulations. Cytonet in Heidelberg is considering outsourcing its stem-cell research to Israel or Britain. Where companies go, scientists will follow: Detlef Ganten, head of the German Research Center Association, says researchers at top universities like Freiburg or Tubingen are considering moving to nearby Strasbourg--just across the Rhine--to take advantage of more liberal regulations in France. His own institute, the Max Delbruck Center in Berlin, has found that the scientists it wants to hire from abroad won't come unless they know that research can proceed. A prolonged standoff might be enough to derail Germany's relatively recent biotech expansion, which had just picked up steam after the massive scientific and corporate exodus in the 1980s, when most genetic research and manufacture--even the production of human insulin--was plain illegal.

The threat of another scientific brain drain is not lost on politicians. "There's no question that we have a moral imperative to protect embryos," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder said recently. "But it's also part of our moral responsibility to care about jobs and prosperity." Nevertheless, he says he won't review the law until this fall, at the earliest. At that rate Schroder may find that German biotech researchers will have voted on their own--with their feet.