Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

stem cells the promiseStem cell research holds great promise for the development of new therapies for many serious human diseases. However, currently, clinically proven stem cell-based treatments have been established only for very few conditions, such as hematopoietic stem cell transplants for leukemia and epithelial stem cell-based treatments for burns and corneal disorders. All other stem cell applications are currently experimental.


Stem Cell use in the UK

In the UK, the law states that the use of embryos in stem cell research can only be carried out with authority from the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA). Licences are only granted if the HFEA is satisfied that any proposed use of embryos is absolutely necessary for the purposes of the research.

Research on human embryos is only allowed for certain purposes, which are outlined in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) and in the subsequent Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001. 

Research is allowed only in the following conditions:

  • To promote advances in the treatment of infertility
  • To increase knowledge about the causes of congenital disease
  • To increase knowledge about the causes of miscarriages.
  • To develop more effective techniques of contraception.
  • To develop methods for detecting the presence of gene or chromosome abnormalities.
  • To increase knowledge about the development of embryos.
  • To increase knowledge about serious disease.
  • To enable any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease.

LicHuman embryonic stem cellsensed research can only take place on embryos created in vitro, i.e. embryos that have developed from eggs fertilised outside the body. Most embryos used in UK stem cell research are embryos initially created for use in fertility treatment, but which are not used. These "surplus" or "supernumerary" IVF embryos, if donated with full consent of the parents, can be used for research.

Licensed research can only take place on embryos up to 14 days. Stem cells are isolated from the blastocysti much sooner than this – at 5-6 days.

Human reproductive cloning is illegal in the UK. As a result of the Human Reproductive Cloning Act (2001) nobody in the UK is allowed to use cell nuclear replacement, or any other technique, to create a child.


Stem Cell use in Europe

The EU's 25 member states take different regulatory positions on human embryonic stem cell research, which reflects the diversity of ethical, philosophical and religious beliefs throughout Europe. These differences are reflected in the laws of each country,

Belgium has a similar legal position to the UK – allowing the procurement of human embryonic stem cells from surplus IVF embryos and, in particular circumstances (e.g. to study a particular serious disease), the creation of human embryos for the procurement of human embryonic stem cells.

At the other end of the spectrum, Germany and Italy prohibit the procurement of human embryonic stem cells from human embryos, while Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have no specific legislation at all in this area.

A downloadable table is available which summarises the legal use of Stem Cells for each of the EU's 25 member states.


Stem Cell use in the USA

Human blastocystHuman blastocystIn the US, legislation and funding for stem cell research are closely entwined. Until March 2009, at a federal level, scientists could not use government money to create new embryonic stem cell lines. All publicly funded work was confined to the 61 stem cell lines in existence in 2001, when the ban on deriving new lines was implemented.

In July 2006 President Bush vetoed a Bill lifting that ban, based on his opposition to the use of public funds for projects involving the destruction of human embryos. However, individual states have always had the authority to pass laws to permit human embryonic stem cell research using state funds. Several states have changed their legislation accordingly, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois. This enabled the establishment of California's $3 billion Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Private funding of embryonic stem cell research in the US has never been prohibited – leaving this sector largely unregulated.

However, with the arrival of President Barack Obama, the funding situation for stem cell research has changed dramatically, as he has lifted restrictions on federal funding for research on new stem cell lines. Mr Obama signed an executive order in a major reversal of US policy, pledging to "vigorously support" new research.



Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Share this page: