Stem cell research

1. Summary

Alzheimer’s Society supports the advancement of stem cell research to help understand the causes of dementia and to find new cures.

Stem cells can grow into brain cells, and as a result, may have the potential to repair brain damage caused by neurological conditions, such as dementia. Although stem cells act in similar ways, there are types of stem cells in terms of where they come from: adult stem cells, which are present in the body throughout adult life; embryonic stem cells, which are only found in the embryo; and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can be created in the lab from ordinary adult cells and ‘reverted’ back into a stem cell.

Alzheimer’s Society recognises that some donors and supporters have ethical objections to the use of embryonic stem cells. Currently, the Society only funds one project that uses embryonic stem cells, and they are only one of a number of types of cells used (more information on the project can be found here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=1743). The wishes of any donor who does not want to support research that uses embryonic stem cells will be fully respected.

2. Stems cells used in research

Stem cells have two important properties. First, they are able to reproduce themselves many times. Second, they can produce all the different cell types needed to make a human being, for instance heart cells, skin cells, nerve cells and so on. Stem cells can grow into brain cells, and as a result, have the potential to repair brain damage caused by neurological conditions, such as dementia. Although stem cells act in similar ways, there are types of stem cells in terms of where they come from: adult stem cells, which are present in the body throughout adult life; embryonic stem cells, which are only found in the embryo; and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can be created in the lab from ordinary adult cells and ‘reverted’ back into a stem cell.

Alzheimer’s Society recognises that some donors and supporters have moral objections to the use of embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. As of December 2014, the Society only funds one project that uses embryonic stem cells, and they are only one of a number of types of cells used (more information on the project can be found here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=1743). The wishes of any donor who does not want to support research that uses embryonic stem cells will be fully respected.

Alzheimer’s Society mainly funds research that uses adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) that do not raise the same ethical concerns. iPSCs are an innovative and valuable research technique for dementia research. iPSCs can be created from ordinary cells, often skin cells, and then ‘turned back’ into stem cells with the potential to become different types of cells that can then be grown into other cell types (brain cells, for example). These offer the potential to be able to take skin cells from an individual with a disease, turn the skin cells back into iPSCs, and then change these in to a new cell type to better understand the disease.

3. Ethical issues

The potential for stem cells to offer new treatments must be balanced with consideration of ethical issues raised by this type of research. Alzheimer’s Society supports a legislative environment that allows stem cell research to develop within a strict regulatory framework.

Embryonic stem cell research is, at present, illegal unless carried out under a licence granted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. In order to gain a licence stem cell research has to meet strict conditions. These are laid out in the Human Tissue and Fertilisation Act (2008). For example, scientists are only allowed to obtain stem cells from human embryos provided that the embryos have not developed beyond 14 days and the research cannot be done by other means.

Further regulation to ensure high standards in the procurement, storage and use of stem cells is provided by the Human Tissue Act (2004) and the Human Tissue (Quality and Safety for Human Application) Regulations 2007. These implement the EU Tissues and Cells Directive. The regulations create additional licensing requirements with the Human Tissue Authority for the creation and storage of stem cell lines intended for human application.

The Medical Research Council and Biological Sciences Research Council have established a National UK Stem Cell Bank, which provides quality-controlled stem cell lines for research. Researchers who wish to use embryonic stem cells from the bank have to comply with a strict Code of Practice, which ensures the stem cell lines have been ethically sourced with informed donor consents.

4. Public understanding

Alzheimer's Society has found significant support for stem cell research when consulting our stakeholders and Research Network volunteers. The Society works to improve public understanding of stem cell research and its potential benefits.

Last updated: January 2015 by Laurence Thraves

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