The United States is only one of many countries playing an important role in stem cell research. In the last decade, several European and Asian countries have become leading centers for the study of stem cells and their possible therapeutic uses. These countries, along with countries from other regions of the world, have greatly expanded the scope of stem cell research, creating an array of scientific advances and medical applications. Below is a rundown on the laws and policies on stem cell research in various countries, as well as their significant research efforts.
In 2004, South Africa became the first African nation to create a stem cell bank. The previous year, the South African government had enacted legislation maintaining a ban on reproductive cloning but authorizing the therapeutic cloning of embryos. In 2002, when South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth became the first African to visit the international space station, he conducted experiments designed by South African researchers to study the development of stem cells in zero-gravity conditions.
China prohibits human reproductive cloning but allows the creation of human embryos for research and therapeutic purposes. The government's most recent regulations on stem cell research, issued in 2003, came in response to international criticism that Chinese regulators were lax in their supervision and enforcement of ethical guidelines for stem cell research. Nonetheless, China continues to permit researchers to conduct clinical trials in which terminally or chronically ill patients receive stem cell therapy.
India has established a booming industry in stem cell banking, which involves storing a patient's stem cells with the aim of possibly using them for future medical treatments. In 2007, the Indian government's biomedical oversight body, the Council for Medical Research, banned reproductive cloning but voted to permit therapeutic cloning. The council also issued guidelines for clinical trials involving stem cells. Currently, stem cells have only been approved for use in bone marrow transplants.
In 2004, Japan's Council for Science and Technology Policy voted to allow scientists to conduct stem cell research for therapeutic purposes, though formal guidelines have yet to be released. In November 2007, Japanese scientists, in collaboration with American researchers, discovered that human skin cells could be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. Though still in the early experimental phase, some believe that this procedure could help diffuse the debate over the destruction of embryos by providing a viable alternative to using embryonic stem cell lines.
Singapore has been dubbed "Asia's stem cell center," with over 40 stem cell research groups in the country. As part of a broader effort to become an important player in biomedical research, Singapore has actively recruited top scientists from around the globe by offering a host of incentives, including the authorization to use, for therapeutic purposes, embryos that are no more than two weeks old.
South Korea's reputation as a leader in stem cell research suffered a significant blow in 2006 when it was discovered that the country's leading biomedical researcher, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, falsely claimed that he was the first scientist to clone human embryonic stem cells for the purpose of clinical trials. Despite the scandal, the South Korean government continues to promote therapeutic cloning for stem cell research, although reproductive cloning is forbidden.
Belgium bans reproductive cloning but allows therapeutic cloning of embryos. Belgium is widely recognized by the international scientific community as an enthusiast of stem cell research, and Belgian scientists successfully extracted stem cell lines from cloned embryos in 2005.
France prohibits reproductive cloning and the creation of embryos for research purposes. However, in an effort to promote stem cell research, in 2004 the government enacted legislation opening a five-year window for scientists to conduct stem cell research on imported surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization treatments. In 2006, national guidelines were expanded to allow scientists to produce their own stem cell lines from surplus embryos. The law will be reviewed in 2009.
Germany has one of the most restrictive policies for human embryonic stem cell research, due in part to the history of unethical medical experiments conducted by the Nazi regime during World War II. For instance, the creation of embryonic stem cells is prohibited. However, in April 2008, German law authorized the use of imported stem cell lines produced before May 1, 2007, to better facilitate the study of stem cell therapy.
Italy strictly limits embryonic stem cell research. In 2004, the government enacted a law forbidding all sperm or egg donations and the freezing of embryos. The policy does not, however, explicitly forbid researchers from using existing stem cell lines that have been imported.
In late 2006, Spain became the fourth country in Europe - after Britain, Sweden and Belgium - to legalize therapeutic cloning. In addition to creating Europe's third stem cell bank, in 2004, Spain also has established three research centers specifically for the study of stem cells and regenerative medicine.
Sweden forbids reproductive cloning, but allows therapeutic cloning. Sweden has a well-established biomedical industry that has been further buoyed by public and political support for stem cell research. In 2002, the Swedish government authorized the creation of Europe's second stem cell bank.
The United Kingdom has long been a major player in bioscience and has been heralded as Europe's leader in stem cell research. Indeed, Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut and his team created the world's first successfully cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, in Scotland in 1996. In 2004, Britain became the third country in the world to allow scientists to clone human embryonic stem cells explicitly for research purposes through somatic nuclear transfer. The following year, a team of British scientists was the first in the world to successfully clone blastocysts, or early-stage embryos. In May 2008, the British Parliament voted to allow researchers to conduct experiments involving animal-human hybrid embryos, known as chimeras.
In 1999, Israel passed legislation banning reproductive, but not therapeutic, cloning. Israeli scientists have made significant breakthroughs in stem cell research, including the first extraction of stem cells from blood in the 1960s. Ongoing research in Israel focuses on regenerative medicine and the practical uses of stem cells as treatment for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease.
Saudi Arabia has been active in stem cell research since 2002, when the government decided to make biotechnology "the new oil of Saudi Arabia." A 2003 fatwa, or legal decree, issued by Saudi religious officials sanctions the use of embryos for therapeutic and research purposes.
In 2006, Canada enacted legislation permitting research on discarded embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures. The Canadian government, however, prohibits the creation of human embryos for research.
Mexico has a thriving stem cell industry but has not yet implemented formal regulations on stem cell research. Indeed, some Mexican doctors are already using stem cells to treat chronically ill foreigners, including Americans, who suffer from conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism and paralysis. These unregulated therapies have been criticized by some in the international medical community.
In March 2005, Brazil passed legislation to permit stem cell research using excess in vitro fertilized embryos that have been frozen for at least three years. That same year, however, a petition backed by Brazil's Catholic Church challenged the law, arguing that embryonic stem cell research violates the right to life. In 2008, Brazil's Supreme Court rejected the petition, ruling that embryonic stem cell research is permissible.
This report was written by Michelle Ralston, Research Assistant, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.