Anyone trying to keep up with recent developments in stem cell research is in for a bumpy ride. The field has had its ups and downs, a particular high point being John Gurdon FRS and Shinya Yamanaka winning the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their paradigm-shifting work on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The duo received the much sought-after award for the discovery that fully differentiated ‘adult’ cells could be reprogrammed to an immature stem cell state, thus challenging the existing dogma that terminal differentiation is an irreversible process. While this may be a cause for celebration for many, stem cell researchers in Europe face other pressing concerns as they steel themselves for upcoming decisions that may impact their funding.
On Oct 18th 2011, a controversial decision by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) in the Brustle v Greenpeace case ruled that any research involving the destruction of human embryos cannot be patented. The ruling covers cases where the destruction is implicit, for example inventions that are developed using human embryonic stem cell lines. The rationale behind the decision is that inventions relying on the destruction of embryos are considered by the Court to be contrary to ‘ordre public’, or morality.
The ruling has had an unsettling effect on the research community and now European funding agencies and scientists are trying to take stock of the downstream consequences. For instance, the European Parliament is in the process of deciding research funding in Horizon 2020, and it appears that its legal committee (JURI) has already voted to exclude funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. A coalition of funders of biomedical research and patient groups has issued a joint statement calling on the European Parliament to maintain the status quo and to continue to fund hESC research in Horizon 2020. It is thought that the parliament will reach a decision by the end of the year.
Where is stem cell research headed to next? In his speech at the Royal Society last week, George Osborne picked out Regenerative Medicine as one of eight future technologies in which he thought the UK could be world-leading. Earlier this month, the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council (MRC) announced a £12.75 million initiative to create a catalogue of high-quality iPSCs. iPSCs have regenerated hope in the field, especially for their potential uses in disease modelling, drug discovery and toxicity tests. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that iPSCs incur more aberrations in differentiation than hESCs. There may therefore be a case for continuing research efforts into all types of stem cells, as it remains to be seen which route will ultimately be the most effective for clinical use. The debate surrounding the morality of embryonic stem cell research is likely to continue, though perhaps it may be influenced by techniques that do not require the destruction of an embryo, such as the creation of embryonic stem cell lines from discarded IVF blastocysts that would otherwise be discarded as waste.