History and Ethics of Stem Cell Research


The history of stem cell research is considered a recent one, yet, it began as early as the middle of the nineteenth century and is rich in questions, approaches, concepts, tools, methodologies and lines of thought. There are at least nine disciplines or research fields which have made major contributions: botany and horticulture; cell theory; evolutionary biology; embryology and developmental biology; haematology; cell and tissue culture; regeneration biology; teratology and teratogeny and cancer research. Moreover, as soon as efforts aimed at extracting and culturing pluripotent cells from human embryos proved successful in 1998, stem cells became objects of bioethical controversy. The moral status of the embryo will be discussed, together with proposed technical means to avoid its destruction, such as altered nuclear transfer, single blastomere biopsy, cytoplasmic hybrids and induced pluripotent stem cells, and the possible ethical problems associated with future medical uses of stem cells.

Key Concepts:

  • Far from being a simple technology or a commodity, the study of stem cells concerns a broad spectrum of issues lying at the heart of the phenomenon of life itself, and thus touches on questions that have been on the agenda of biological inquiry for a long time.

  • Like most biological research fields, the history of stem cell research shows a constant weaving and unweaving of many concepts and tools, coming from different experimental settings, lines of thought and at least nine different biomedical areas.

  • At some moments of its history, the ‘stem cell’ has become a more concrete and even manageable object, at other moments it was found difficult to localise the phenomenon of self‐renewal in one or in a few cells.

  • Recently, stem cell research is characterised by harsh bioethical controversy, mainly revolving around the issue of the moral status of human embryos.

  • Scientists have proposed some technical ways for circumventing ethical problems, but other morally relevant issues still lie before stem cell research.

  • In the future, medical innovation through stem cell‐based regenerative medicine is likely to give rise to issues regarding safety, ethical oversight and distributive justice.

Keywords: regeneration; embryo; bioethics; altered nuclear transfer (ANT); induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell; cybrid; distributive justice

Figure 1.

Edmund B Wilson's diagram showing Boveri's and Haecker's ontogenetic concept of stem cells as the point of departure of the germ line as well as of the somatic line. From Wilson Figure 135. Reproduced by permission of Biblioteca storica, Dipartimento di Biologia evoluzionistica sperimentale, Università di Bologna.



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Further Reading

Brown N, Martin P and Kraft A (2006) The promissory pasts of blood stem cells. BioSocieties 1: 329–348.

Cooper M (2003) Rediscovering the immortal Hydra: stem cells and the question of epigenesis. Configurations 11(1): 1–26.

Dröscher A (in press) Where does stem cell research stem from? A terminological history of the first ninety years. In: Mazzolini RG and Rheinberger HJ (eds) Differing Routs Towards Stem Cell Research: Germany and Italy. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Gottweis H, Salter B and Waldby C (2009) The Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Science: Regenerative Medicine in Transition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gottweis H and Minger S (2008) iPS cells and the politics of promise. Nature Biotechnology 26: 271–272.

Testa G (2008) Stem cells through stem beliefs. Science as Culture 17(4): 435–448.

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Blasimme, Alessandro, and Dröscher, Ariane(Sep 2011) History and Ethics of Stem Cell Research. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022664]