Stem cell research
Stem cells are characterized by their ability to multiply by themselves and to develop by cell division either into other stem cells or into specialized types of cells (neurons, blood cells, skin cells etc.). They are present particularly in the early embryonic stages. Stem cells themselves are often described by distinguishing between totipotency and pluripotency. Totipotent cells are those which, if the necessary further requirements are met, can divide themselves and develop into an individual being (see § 8 I ESchG). Pluripotent cells cannot develop into a full organism, but they can develop into various types of cells, tissue, and organs. Multipotency describes the ability to develop into some but not all cell types. At least the latter differentiation has become more permeable due to recent research results on reprogramming ability.
There is much interest in human embryonic stem cell research because these cells are useful for the analysis of cell developmental processes and, in the future, may enable the development of suitable cells or tissue in the lab as well as their transplantation. However, if stem cells are harvested from blastocysts (early embryonic stage), then the embryo is destroyed. Therefore, harvesting methods and the import of human embryonic stem cells are subject to controversial discussions. On the one hand, scientists are looking for alternative ways to achieve the desired results, e.g., by researching stem cells from umbilical cord blood or tissue-specific stem cells. On the other, researchers are seeking ways to create embryonic stem cells which may not be able to develop into a full organism, for example due to genetic manipulation.
The legal situation within Europe varies. In Germany, the German Embryo Protection Act (ESchG) prohibits the creation of embryos in vitro for research purposes, research on such embryos or individual totipotent cells, or the use of embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells. In accordance with the stringent prohibition conditions set forth by the ESchG, the import and use of embryonic stems cells from other countries is permitted upon prior approval. Many aspects, e.g., conditions for approval or the key date regulation, are subject to permanent discussion.
Marion Albers, 22.07.2014 / Marion.Albers@uni-hamburg.de