Policy on the use of stem cells in research

Wellcome supports the use of all stem cells1 in research where such research meets legal and ethical requirements and believes their use is vital for expanding our knowledge of biological and disease processes. Our support is driven by the potential benefits stem cell research holds in furthering our vision to achieve improvements in health.

Background

Stem cells can be derived from a number of different sources. Adult or somatic stem cells are isolated from specialised tissues and organs in humans or animals. Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are extracted from a very early stage human embryo when it is a collection of cells known as a blastocyst.2 These are usually sourced from early stage embryos no longer required for IVF which would otherwise be destroyed. Most hESC research now uses cell lines already in existence – copies of those cells which have been derived in the past.

Stem cells have several significant and unique features that distinguish them from other types of cells. They are ‘master cells’ that can self-renew and under certain conditions, differentiate into specialised cells, such as a neuron or red blood cell. Their capacity to differentiate into specialised cells varies between different types of stem cells.

Research using stem cells is advancing our understanding of biological development, tissue repair and regeneration, and researchers are exploring the potential of stem cells in developing new treatments and therapies.

Implementation and Wellcome's requirements of grantholders

Implementation of the policy 

To realise the full potential of stem cells for improving health, scientists must be able to continue research in all avenues of stem cell research, including adult, human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells in basic and clinical science.

We are committed to supporting the translation of stem cell research into healthcare impacts; the mechanism by which this is achieved (for example, by patent protection or open publication of research results) should be whichever is most likely to produce a successful healthcare impact that benefits the public. We do not stipulate how this should be achieved and the appropriate route for researchers to best accomplish this impact will vary according to individual circumstances and may require a combination of approaches.

Requirements for grantholders

Translation of stem cell research into healthcare benefits

Maximising the outcomes of research to improve health for the benefit of the public should be the primary consideration in deciding the most appropriate route for exploiting research results – whether that be through commercial or non-commercial means

We support a range of mechanisms to ensure the greatest impact from Wellcome-funded research, including open access publication. Our policy position on intellectual property provides further details on how the potential healthcare impacts can be best realised. Foundational discoveries3 that could lead to a greater benefit through unrestricted use should be freely available.

Ethical and regulatory requirements

As with all scientific research funded by Wellcome, stem cell research will be funded on merit and scientific excellence after rigorous peer review and in line with the current legal and regulatory framework. We expect all Wellcome-funded researchers to conduct stem cell research according to high ethical standards.

Specific guidance related to research using stem cells can be found in the UK Stem Cell Bank's Code of Practice for the use of Human Stem Cell Lines.

We will only fund research outside the UK that would be considered to be in line with current good practice and the principles of UK legislation.

Depositing high quality cell lines in stem cell banks, maximises resources, reduces duplication and encourages consistency in the field. We require that researchers deposit a viable sample of every human embryonic stem cell line derived in the course of Wellcome-funded research with an internationally recognised stem cell bank, such as the National Stem Cell Bank in the UK. We recommend that stem cell lines of other types (eg somatic, induced pluripotent) are likewise deposited in an appropriate bank.

We will, in principle, consider funding egg sharing schemes to provide human eggs for research, provided such schemes have received approval from appropriate bodies and the Trust is satisfied with the scientific merits and ethical aspects of individual applications, which it will evaluate on a case by case basis.

More information

We recognise the complexity of ongoing legal, ethical, social and scientific developments in relation to human embryonic stem cells and we will continue to monitor and develop our policies in this area. We will seek to influence legal and policy developments in relation to stem cells where Wellcome is of the view that this is necessary in furthering our vision.

To discuss this issue further, contact the Strategic Planning and Policy Unit: sppu@wellcome.ac.uk

Footnotes

1This includes adult (somatic), embryonic, foetal and induced pluripotent stem cells.

2More details on the different types of stem cells are provided in Sections 2.1.1 to 2.1.5 of the UK Stem Cell Bank's 'Code of Practice for the use of Human Stem Cell Lines' (2010).

3Foundational discoveries would include work such as the Human Genome Project or any composition of matter which occurs naturally in the human body or in nature.

Contact us

If you have questions about any of our policies, contact the policy team.