IVF Paved The Way For Stem Cell Research

Because of theological and ethical opposition to embryo research, stem cell research started long after IVF began in 1978. It really only began to take off after the isolation of human embryonic stem cells (HESCs) in 1998. “Suddenly all the funding agencies wanted to fund research, and clinics were encouraged to participate by asking their patients to donate surplus embryos,” says Murdoch.

In their earliest stages, embryos are made up of stem cells, which can develop into any tissue type in the body. Later generations of cells become specialised: heart cells, muscles, neurons and so on. Because of their versatility, HESCs can be used to grow tissues for regenerative medicine. Efforts to treat conditions such as heart disease or Parkinson’s by injecting stem cells into the respective tissues are now undergoing human clinical trials. In the US, such stem cell therapies have been hampered by the ruling of the George W Bush administration in 2001 that research using new HESC lines taken from IVF embryos could not be federally funded. Such uses of embryos were deemed unethical by Bush’s conservative bioethics advisory panel.

Despite such obstacles, says Murdoch, since 2000 “the science of HESCs made good progress, and the UK was prominent in this research”. Murdoch’s group at Newcastle has pioneered mitochondrial transfer techniques, the offspring of which are misleadingly dubbed “three-parent babies”, to combat heritable and debilitating mitochondrial diseases. “If we had not had the prior experience in [in vitro] human embryology and in the management of the ethical and regulatory challenges from HESC research, we would probably never have been able to achieve this,” she says. Such advances have been aided by the HFEA’s permissive but tight regulatory framework. “It is no accident that the UK is the first country in the world to license gene editing in research and mitochondrial donation in treatment,” says Thompson.
By Phillip Ball Guardian Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

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