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It is essential to conduct these debates transparently and to face them again and again, especially in societies with different worldviews and concepts of life. Only in this manner can ways be found for dealing with new technologies that will also be sustainably supported by society.

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The question of the importance of early human life played particularly in the early debate on stem cell research an important role, but it is still being discussed today. Although reprogramming somatic cells cf. However, it is not necessary to obtain new embryonic stem cells for every research question; it is possible to fall back on already established stem cell lines as embryonic stem cells can be multiplied again and again in culture conditions. The question as to whether the human embryo is worthy of protection lies at the center of the ethical discussion.

Does this allow embryos to be used to derive stem cells or even to be created only for this purpose? There is no global answer to this question.

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Other legal systems permit the creation and destruction of human embryos specifically for research purposes. Ultimately, these regulations always raise questions about the moral status of early human life. When does the human embryo become a human being in the moral sense? From fertilization, from implantation in the uterus, from a certain stage of development or, for example, only from birth? A proven method of ethically evaluating an action is to ask about the legitimacy of both the objectives pursued by the action and the means used.

Since the justifiability of the means also depends on what other means are available, the question of possible alternatives plays an important role. Stem cell research has since developed beyond the stage of pure basic research. The first clinically tested therapies with stem cells are approved and many other therapeutic approaches are under development. With the increase in clinical trials, the involvement of clinical ethics committees in the approval process for stem cell-based applications is becoming increasingly important.

Tissue databases are being created for stem cell research, particularly for research on induced pluripotent stem cells.

Issues Beyond the Debate on the Moral Status of the Human Embryo

But what rights do the original tissue donors have to the processed cell cultures and how are they to be involved appropriately in the research results? Should tissue donors be informed when research reveals abnormalities in their tissue samples? Such developments always raise further ethically relevant questions. For example, cultures from human stem cells or iPS cells could be used to test drugs and active substances and thus contribute to reducing the number of animal experiments.

The production of meat from animal muscle stem cells has been possible for some time. Research and industry worldwide are now working on the marketability of lab-grown meat. The normative effects, for example with regard to animal welfare and climate protection, are enormous. These and many other questions will have to be discussed in the coming years by normative scientists, political decision-makers, and the public.

Human embryonic stem cell research: ethical and legal issues

The potential of stem cell research has also raised many expectations in society. Patients suffering from severe and previously incurable diseases, in particular, have high hopes of being cured by tissue replacement. The field holds the potential to revolutionize the way human diseases are treated, and many nations have therefore invested heavily in stem cell research and its applications. The study provides an overview of the stem cell research field as a whole, with particular focus on pluripotent stem cells.

Pluripotent stem cells are of particular interest because they are undifferentiated cells, which have the potential to differentiate into virtually any cell type in the body 1; see Figure 1. This property opens the door to clinical applications such as cell and organ replacement 2 and may accelerate drug discovery, drug screening and toxicological assessment. There are different kinds of pluripotent stem cells: embryonic stem cells ES are sourced from a blastocyst an early embryo , and when sourced from human blastocysts are called human embryonic stem cells hES , while induced pluripotent stem cells iPS - which were only recently discovered in by Shinya Yamanaka and colleagues at Kyoto University - are sourced from body cells, and then genetically reprogrammed to become pluripotent.

For more detailed information on stem cells, please refer to our study 3. The document sets underlying our analyses were created using keyword searches which are provided in the methodology section of our study , and were limited to articles, reviews and conference proceedings. They include primary research articles as well as other publication types, such as reviews, papers on policy and regulation, ethical considerations, etcetera.

We will also examine the publication trends of China and the United States specifically, to see whether we can observe the impact of country level policy decisions in the publication data. Our study found that the overall corpus of stem cell related papers shows a relatively fast growth rate and citation impact.

Stem cells and its subtypes are custom subject areas that were created using keyword searches. Each document set therefore includes publications belonging to various disciplines of the All Science Journal Classification. Looking at specific types of stem cell research, the emergence of the iPS cell field first publication in stands out. The FWCI calculated at the beginning of the period was based on relatively low publication counts, which are more subject to outlier effects than later data-points, which are based on larger publication volumes.

The decline in FWCI see Figure 3 should not be interpreted as a decrease in quality of research, rather it should be seen as a natural and expected decline as publication volume increases. That is strong evidence to support the sustained recognition and importance of the emerging field of iPS cell research. We observed that hES cell publication output peaked in , and while ES cell research overall shows a high publication volume, it is predominantly represented by non-human ES cell research see Figure 2.

Source: Scopus. The pale blue line represents the global average field-weighted citation impact for all publications in the various subject areas, assigned to the journals in which stem cell papers are published. Our study also examined the extent to which stem cell publications are aligned with the societal goals of developing new treatments for diseases, by analyzing the publications for use of keywords related to two themes: regenerative medicine and drug development. The results show that more than half of all stem cell publications do not use keywords related to either theme see Figure 4.

Such publications may be related to basic research which addresses the fundamental biology of stem cells.


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These specific themes may also not be relevant to many clinical or translational publications, e. If we think of the embryonic stem cells, they tell us a lot about how our bodies develop from an embryo. It is not surprising to see that regenerative medicine is significantly represented within each type of stem cell research. Alongside positive developments in stem cell biology, regenerative medicine has enabled the development of new biotechnologies that promote self-repair and regeneration, such as the construction of new tissues to improve or restore the function of injured or destroyed tissues and organs 4.

Drug development is represented by a much smaller share of each type of stem cell research. This may reflect the particular potential that iPS cells hold for the development of disease models, personalized medicine, and drug toxicity testing. To expand on the analysis done in the study, we used the new generation of SciVal to examine stem cell papers related to drug development by setting up the relevant research fields using the same keywords applied in our initial study.


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The results are presented in figure 5. The number of iPS cell papers related to drug development has clearly grown fast since the first iPS cell paper was published in , as it has since surpassed the numbers of ES and hES cell papers related to drug development.

Source: SciVal. Stem cell research has provoked debate regarding the ethics and regulation of the research and resulting therapies. Initially these discussions focused largely on the moral status of the embryo. The discovery of iPS cells raised the possibility that ES cell research would no longer be necessary, thereby circumventing the ethical issues present in embryonic research. This has not been the case, as the stem cell field continues to rely both on ES and iPS cell research to progress the understanding of pluripotency and potential applications 5.

Furthermore, iPS cell research is not free of ethical considerations in terms of how they may be used as well as the question of tissue ownership. Looking at the data, we see continued publications in ES and hES, but do observe that the global volume of iPS publications has surpassed the volume of hES cell publications in see Figure 6.