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Genomics Forum · Research

Under the Microscope: Stem Cells

Nadja Kanellopolou

Start date


Affiliated staff

Almut Caspary


Almut Caspary & Nadja Kanellopolou - since left the Genomics Forum

Please contact: forum@genomicsnetwork.ac.uk


June 2007 - Nature launched new website on stem cell research. "With the surge in stem cell research has come a need for improved outlets of communication. Our goal is to provide a dynamic forum for discussion and information, as well as content as diverse as the stakeholders in this field?scientists, policy makers, the business and legal communities, ethicists, clinicians, and all of us who stand to benefit from stem cell therapies someday. Nature Reports Stem Cells was launched to explore the latest developments in this dynamic field."

April 2007 - Hybrids and Chimeras? Creating Human/Animal embryos in research.Difficulties surrounding the supply of human eggs have led scientists to propose using animals as the source of eggs needed. The idea is to insert human cell nuclei into denucleated animal eggs. The created animal/human or 'hybrid embryos' could be used for the production of stem cell lines. The HFEA consultation on the issue which will run until 20 July.

March 2007 - Government to ask public what they think of stem cell science.Science and Innovation Minister Malcolm Wicks announced that the UK's two major public funders of stem cell research will run a national public discussion about this cutting-edge area of science. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) will run the public dialogue programme to gain an insight into public attitudes towards stem cell research. More information on Government News Network.

Introduction Scientists around the world are keen to understand the role of both somatic and embryonic stem cells for tissue development and regeneration. They are working on techniques that allow the application of stem cells in treatment. Currently, bloodforming stem cells are used in the treatment of leukaemia to replace faulty blood cells. Among the conditions which scientists believe may eventually be treated by stem cell therapy are Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, burns and spinal cord damage.

As science and technology continue to advance, so do ethical, social, economic and legal concerns and implications surrounding these developments. In fact, all scientific research and development takes place in, and is shaped and conditioned by, its social and cultural context. To explore such issues in their relevance for policy and regulatory bodies is the aim of the ESRC funded Stem Cell Initiative.

Background The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the rapidly growing area of stem cell research and cloning. During the 1980s, Sir Martin Evans and his team in Cambridge pioneered stem cell science in studies of mice; in Edinburgh in 1997, Prof. Ian Wilmut and his team showed how cloning could be used to turn back adult body cells into versatile embryonic stem cells. In 2004, the United Kingdom became one of the first nations to permit the creation of human embryos through cloning techniques for embryonic stem cell research. And as recently as 2005, the UK was able to announce its first successfully cloned human embryo.

Yet stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cell research, is mired in controversy. Two examples: Human embryonic stem cells are taken from 4-5 day old embryos, which were created either directly for research purposes through cloning techniques, or through IVF techniques for reproduction purposes. Opponents argue that all human embryos have the potential of developing into a full human being and therefore should not be destroyed for research. In response to this, UK legislation considers the embryo before 14 days of development as having special status: its moral value is different to the moral status commonly attributed to babies, children, and adults. This allows its use in research, especially where such research has the potential of health benefits.

The second example concerns issues of applications where safety concerns arise: some researchers fear that stem cell therapy could unwittingly pass viruses and other disease causing agents to people who receive cell transplants. Stem cells, both somatic and embryonic, need feeder layers to develop and differentiate. Currently, these feeders and nutrients are mostly taken from animal sources, which can harbour diseases and contaminate the human cell population. Like any dividing cell population, stem cell population are also subject to small genetic or chromosomal changes, which could lead to cancerous cells.

These are only two of many questions brought up by stem cell science. In order to investigate these and the many other ethical, social, and regulatory implications of stem cell research, both of somatic and embryonic stem cells, in autumn 2005 the ESRC set up its Social Science Stem Cell Initiative. The Initiative has the broad aim of supporting a range of activities during a three-year period to the value of £1.7million. Research projects inquire into issues of public perception and public engagement around questions of stem cell research, investigate and compare regulatory practices globally, feed back into UK policies, look at laboratory standards and cultures as well as scientific debates around stem cells, and reflect on the potential of commercial exploitation of research. The Initiative aims to build research capacity and raise awareness within the UK social science community and beyond in regard to the emerging field of Stem Cell science.

In autumn 2006 under the second phase of the Stem Cell Initiative, the ESRC funded further work in the area. £1million were made available to support research and outreach activities within and outside the ESRC Genomics Network (EGN). In this context, the Genomics Forum has been awarded funding to develop a workshop series of capacity building, networking and outreach activities as well as to organise a short course for young stem cell scientists.


The objective of the workshop series is:

  • to build on the work of the ESRC funded stem cell research community by bringing together social science researchers with scientists, policy makers, regulators as well as representatives of industry and civil society
  • to advance existing work, encourage interdisciplinary insights and collaboration
  • identify and explore current and emerging policy issues
  • exposing the significance of ESRC stem cell research to a wider audience

The short course aims specifically at young (post-doc) natural scientists in the area of stem cells. Looking at stem cell science from the perspective of the social sciences, young scientists will get an insight into the reactions of the public, politics and individuals to the science that they do. The short course's objective is:

  • to discuss the societal aspects of stem cell research in general and of their work in particular
  • to provide an introduction to social scientific research on issues raised by stem cell science and technology
  • to build capacity for the appreciation, reception, and use of social science amongst natural scientists


Key Activities: CBAR Workshop Series

CBAR Workshop 1 - The first CBAR workshop on the ‘Sociology and Science of Stem Cells’ was organised in May 2007. Social and natural scientists participants explored issues that arise at the interface of basic and clinical stem cell research, the way in which laboratory procedures and scientific standards are produced, their significance in influencing research decisions, and their implications for the nature of stem cell research.

CBAR Workshop 2 - The second CBAR workshop on 'Law and Ethical Regulation of Stem Cells' will take place on 23 November 2007. It is dedicated to key issues in the regulation of stem cell research and the legal protection of human embryonic stem cell (heSC) research. Current legal regimes on the use of heSC for research purposes vary widely, from permissive to restrictive, in different countries with diverse cultural backgrounds. This event will provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on the role of law in regulating heSC research, the links between law, ethics and culture, and their implications for research priorities and practice. The workshop aims to promote understanding of the ‘basic ingredients’ of stem cell law, and the interaction of legal, scientific, ethical and social expertise in regulatory policy and practice of stem cell science.

Information on future workshops will be posted here. For information, please email nadja.kanellopoulou@ed.ac.uk



Caspary, A., Kanellopoulou, N., ‘Capacity-building awareness in stem cell research’ Stem Cell Festival, Cardiff, 22 March 2007


Planned publications include a series of policy briefs and special journal editions.