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image European Research News Centre > Medecine and Health > Stem cells: promises and precautions
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image image image Date published: 18/12/2001
  image Stem cells:
promises and precautions


RTD info 32


Just three years after having been isolated in the human embryo and grown in culture, stem cells are now a very 'hot topic' among biologists. There is scarcely an international congress where the corridors are not buzzing with talk of the latest developments. Outside specialist circles too, in the world of media and politics and among the heavyweights of research and the pharmaceutical industry, fascination is growing at stem cells' surprising properties. But what is the reason for all the fuss? Quite simply, stem cells are the fundamental raw material on the basis of which all human organs develop - which means they hold the key to completely new kinds of treatment in the field of regenerative medicine.

The list of diseases which potentially could be treated following developments in this emerging discipline is as long as it is varied. It ranges from certain kinds of diabetes - caused by lesions of the pancreas - to strokes, including cirrhosis and other liver diseases, hereditary immunodeficiencies (bubble children), cancers, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis or lupus erythrematosus.

Along with new hopes, a number of scientific and ethical questions are also being raised. The study of stem cells is still very much in its infancy and an enormous research effort is required. This immediately poses problems of priorities. This sudden 'newcomer' on the treatment scene - which could produce its first applications in the relatively short term - is, in a sense, in competition with genomics, hitherto also the subject of very high hopes, but whose applications are likely to take a considerable time to develop.

As to the ethics of the matter, the use of stem cells is at present largely dependent on the possibility of using human embryos and raises the question of the legitimacy of so-called therapeutic cloning. Other sources of supply could possibly provide an alternative - such as blood from the umbilical cord or adult stem cells - but these fields of research remain largely unexplored territory.

Stem cells are now a subject of debate at European Union level. While determined to be actively involved in this very promising scientific field, the Union is nevertheless very aware of the need to respect the rules of prudence and ethics demanded by the general public. For this reason, the European Commission invited scientists, industrialists and politicians to attend a major forum in Brussels on 18 and 19 December 2001, entitled Stem cells: therapies for the future? The event is aimed at a cross-section of civil society, including specialists in the human sciences, lawyers, patients' associations, interest groups, students and teachers, educators and the media.






Stem cells conference website



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