Key Facts – Stem Cell Research
What are stem cells?
Stem cells may be seen as the ‘starter cells’ of the human body in that they have the potential to develop into any possible cell line.
How are stem cells classified?
There are three main types of stem cells: embryonic, foetal and adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are those that are found in the first few days of embryo development. They are extremely useful in research as they have the potential to become any possible body cell. The use of embryonic stem cells makes up the largest area of debate surrounding stem cell research due to opponents claiming that such experimentation leads to the destruction of potential people.
Foetal stem cells (obtained at birth from blood from donated placentas or umbilical cords; or from aborted foetuses) are mostly differentiated, but many still have their ability to develop in to any cell type (totipotent).
Adult stem cells are found in the body throughout life but only have the potential to develop in to one of a few specific cell types(pluripotent), depending on their nature. Their use in research is generally less opposed than the use of embryonic stem cells.
What are some of the present areas of stem cell research?
- Improved fertility treatments, especially IVF.
- More effective contraceptive methods.
- Experimentation on stem cells due to their similarity to tumour cells
- Detection and cure of genetic defects and associated illnesses
- Growth of new tissues/organs for transplantation
What does UK legislation say about embryo stem cell research?
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990 established the first official legislation regarding embryo research.
The 2008 Act stipulates that research on embryos is illegal beyond the appearance of the primitive streak/14-days gestation and may only be performed according to one of eight strict licensing criteria. The creation of human admixed embryos in vitro (banned in the 1990 Act) is also now permitted, but is also bound by the eight licensing criterion.