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Alternatives to embryonic stem cells

Scientists are exploring alternative ways to develop embryonic stem cells for research. Through its Scientific and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee (SCAAC), the HFEA is considering the developments of these techniques and their possible uses in the future.

What can embryonic stem cells be used for?

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to form different types of cells in the body, for example nerve cells or cardiac cells.  Embryonic stem cells are important for research into cell biology, drugs testing and disease modelling.  In the future they may be able to be used in therapies for patients. 

Why does finding alternatives to embryonic stem cells matter?

Embryonic stem cells are derived from the cells inside an embryo.  Currently the only way to get embryonic stem cells involves destroying the embryo.  Researchers are looking to develop alternative ways to get embryonic stem cells, or cells similar to embryonic stem cells, without destroying viable embryos.

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What are the alternatives to embryonic stem cells?

A range of techniques are being explored. These include:

  • directly reprogramming cells, such as skin cells, into cells similar to embryonic stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells)
  • taking a single cell from an embryo and using this cell to derive embryonic stem cell lines.  The remaining embryo can continue to develop
  • using non-viable embryos that would otherwise have been discarded from IVF treatment

Research on these techniques is still at an early stage and currently they do not present a feasible alternative to the conventional method of deriving embryonic stem cells. However the HFEA is monitoring progress in these techniques.

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What is the role of the HFEA

The HFEA licenses all research involving human embryos. Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, the HFEA’s Licence Committee must consider whether any proposed research is "necessary" or "desirable", and in addition, whether it is necessary for embryos to be used for the purpose of that proposed research, before granting any research licences. 

This requirement is also in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as it stands. HFEA licence committees therefore need to be aware of any alternative methods to creating and using human embryos before licensing research applications.

The HFEA monitors developments in alternative techniques to derive embryonic stem cells through its horizon scanning process.

The horizon scanning process is an early warning system that identifies any new scientific techniques that may impact assisted reproduction or human embryo research. 

This allows the HFEA to consider the legal, ethical and scientific implications of any new technique that scientists or clinicians may wish to use in licensed research or treatment. 

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What are we doing?

Research into alternative ways of deriving embryonic stem cells was identified as a high priority issue for the HFEA during the 2007-08 horizon scanning process. 

The HFEA’s Scientific and Clinical Advances Group looked at the issue in depth at its meeting in February 2008, and will consider developments in the future. 

Information on the different techniques is being passed onto HFEA research licence committees for them to consider during research licence applications.

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Page last updated: 13 April 2009

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