A new law on embryonic stem cell research comes into force on March 1, putting Switzerland on a par with other European nations.
The new legislation, approved by two-thirds of voters last November after a sometimes bitter debate, offers the hope of overcoming some incurable diseases.
The law allows researchers to take stem cells from "supernumerary" human embryos, in other words embryos created for in vitro fertilisation but not actually needed for implantation.
Scientists hope that research on stem cells will one day help in the fight against degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
The law was passed by parliament in December 2003, but a referendum opposing the legislation was organised by anti-abortion groups. These activists say that the human embryo is for all intents and purposes a person.
Left-wing environmentalists also opposed the law, sceptical of developments in genetic research.
As of March 1, existing stem cell research projects must be declared within three months to the Federal Health Office.
New projects will be subject to authorisation by the office based on the recommendations of a specially appointed ethics committee.
"We do not expect to receive many applications on March 1," said Anita Holler, of the office’s Biomedicine Division.
During the debate preceding the referendum, several researchers let it be known that, if the vote was favourable, they would be putting forward projects.
"It is a fair assumption that the first projects to get off the ground will be using imported cells, because creating new lines of stem cells from supernumerary embryos takes time," Holler told swissinfo.
The law sets strict limits on the kind of research that can be undertaken. It is forbidden to produce embryos for research purposes, and to create clones, chimeras (part-human, part-animal organisms) or hybrids.
Stems cells may only be taken from embryos in the first seven days of their development. The use of embryos for commercial purposes is banned.
The use of supernumerary embryos is permitted if the couples concerned have given their written consent, after being fully informed about the research project.
Holler believes that couples will willingly donate embryos for research.
"Under the new law, couples have two options," she said. "Either to destroy supernumerary embryos, or let them be used for research."
Previously, destruction was the only outcome.
Anyone breaking the provisions of the law is liable to a fine of up to SFr500,000 ($427,460) or five years jail.
The system of regulation for stem cell research adopted by Switzerland is similar to those in force in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.
"Switzerland is positioned midway between Britain, which has adopted a very liberal model, and Germany, where the regulations are more restrictive", points out Holler.
Britain allows the production of embryos for research purposes, while Germany only permits research on imported lines of stem cells.
"In any case, under the new legislation Swiss researchers are well placed vis-à-vis their European colleagues", concludes Holler.
swissinfo, Andrea Tognina
Stem cells are unspecialised cells, which can develop into any part of the human body.
Because of this potential, researchers believe it will be possible one day to use them to fight degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Stem cells are present mainly in the early stages of life, when the cells of a fertilised egg begin to multiply before developing into a human baby.
Stem cells are also found in the umbilical cord and in the adult organism, but their potential is more limited than that of embryonic stem cells.
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