Stem cell research: boundaries and regulation

In the UK, scientists are allowed to keep an embryo for research until it is 14 days old, when the first traces of neurons are laid down. However, stem cells are usually extracted from an embryo when it is only five-days old.

Scientists grow these stem cells into a stem cell line which, in the future, should provide a supply of healthy cells for people who are seriously ill. In QMUL and in other institutions in the UK, stem cell scientists are working on understanding, and finding treatments for, diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, bone repair, cancer and spinal injury.

One team of researchers at QMUL hope that stem cells may be turned into heart cells which are then injected into a damaged heart to help repair it.

QMUL scientists are also studying the role of stem cells in tumours. The growth and renewal of all normal tissues depends on stem cells and it is now apparent that stem cells are also responsible for the growth of abnormal tissues, such as cancers. Cancerous stem cells form only a small fraction of the tumour cells, and they are difficult to find, but they are the cells that need to be killed in order to stop the tumour growing. QMUL scientists are working to discover what changes normal stem cells into cancerous stem cells and whether such changes can be used to develop new medicines that can kill them.

Picture of stem cells

Cancer stem cells can be seen on the left, non-cancerous ones on the right.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority

To work with stem cells in the UK, scientists need a license from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

In the HFE Act of 1990 and 2002, the authority ruled that research involving embryos is only allowed under special circumstances. They decided that research is allowed if it will improve treatment of infertility or will help people with serious diseases.