Switzerland's National Science Foundation has approved limited research on stem cells taken from human embryos provided it is not used for commercial purposes. The production of such cells is banned in Switzerland, but the decision means scientists can import them.
The foundation said stem cell research on human embryos should be permitted, but only under very tight controls. The decision stemmed from a request by two Geneva biologists to import human embryo stem cells from the United States to build on the research they had already carried out on such cells from mice.
It said the decision was based on the "enormous potential of [stem cell] research for cellular therapy in diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson or heart attacks" and the importance of preserving Swiss expertise in this field.
The foundation also called on the government to draw up detailed legislation that spells out how research on human embryonic stem cells will be conducted in future.
Moral and ethical issues
Embryonic stem cells can be transformed into almost any other cell type in the body. Experts believe they may eventually lead to treatments for a range of serious illnesses. But moral and ethical considerations have made the research controversial.
The foundation said any stem cell research projects in Switzerland had to be approved by the scientific panel, be of a purely scientific nature and pursue clearly defined therapeutic goals.
In addition, scientists must ensure that stem cells imported from abroad must be obtained legally and at no charge from countries where they were developed for in-vitro fertilisation purposes. They must also obtain permission from the donors.
The decision comes after Switzerland's national ethics commission for human medicine called for a ban on the import of embryonic stem cells until all ethical questions have been properly debated.
That recommendation would have effectively led to a freeze on all embryonic stem cell research in Switzerland.
The commission's president, Christoph Rehmann-Sutter, told swissinfo that the ethical questions involved were so important that a debate was needed before research could proceed.
He denied that a ban would enable other countries with less stringent laws to steal a march on Switzerland.
swissinfo with agencies