After months of wrangling German lawmakers finally modified stem cell legislation in the country, but the law still does not allow for cultivation of the same.
Lawmakers approved by 346 votes to 228, with six abstensions, changes allowing the importation of stem cells taken from embryos before May 1, 2007. Previously the cut-off was January 2002.
Because the divisive issue has such strong moral overtones, lawmakers were allowed to vote their conscience and were not asked by their political parties to support a specific position.
Scientists say stem cell therapy holds great medical promise, including the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Stem cells can develop into any of hundreds of different cell types in the body, replacing ones lost or damaged by disease.
But research has been highly controversial because, until recently, these pluripotent cells were only extractable from human embryos.
Two groups of scientists, however, have recently bypassed most ethical objections by transforming human skin cells into stem cells that have same potential to grow into different kinds of organ tissue.
Under the new legislation, German researchers will still be obliged to import cells for their work from abroad.
Proponents of the amended law argued that the number and quality of cells produced since 2002 were much greater, and the new legislation multiplies the number of usable sources roughly 25-fold.
Another consideration for lawmakers was the threat of a possible brain drain of promising scientists if legislation were not relaxed.
"Many young researchers do not see a future for themselves in Germany, but rather abroad," professor Juergen Hescheler said.
The relaxed legislation had received support from research minister Annette Schaven and counterparts from the ministries of health, justice and the economy.
But Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of German Catholics, said that "killing embryos will never be justifiable."
His view was backed by Norbert Lammert, the president of the Bundestag, or lower chambre of parliament, who said: "There are limits, even for research."