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
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.