Around the world, different countries – and entire continents – are working separately but collectively to develop innovative and life-changing treatments through stem cell research. The field is growing quickly as clinical trials prove that stem cell therapies have the potential to treat or reduce symptoms of diseases, conditions and disabilities that have, up until this point, been untreatable.
In China, stem cells from baby teeth are being used to regrow damaged dental tissue. In Canada, neural stem cells are being used to restore motor impairments caused by cerebral palsy. But, it’s important to recognise that there isn’t one set of laws that govern the globe and some countries are extremely limited by the laws and policies that are in place.
Here’s a look at stem cell research around the world.
As a continent, Africa is lagging behind others in terms of research and clinical trials related to stem cells with 80% of Mesenchymal stem cell clinical trials occurring in Asia, Europe and North America and just 2.5% occurring in Africa. But, given legislative issues and religious beliefs, this isn’t surprising.
In South Africa, regulatory legislation has existed since 2013 and is mostly concerned with the use of embryo derived stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells and adult stem cells. But, the legislation isn’t strictly implemented and is often completely overlooked, especially for medical scientists involved in stem cell tourism.
In Egypt, experimental stem cell research (including cloning) is generally accepted whereas, in Tunisia, it’s prohibited, along with research of embryonic stem cells. But Tunisia is the exception, not the rule. In most other African Arab countries, there isn’t clear legislation that controls stem cell research, and governing bodies rely on established religious and ethical beliefs. Without concrete rules and government support, the growth of stem cell research is stifled, and Africa as a whole isn’t able to contribute as much to the field.
Nonetheless, scientists and researchers are still working together at workshops like the one held in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Here, attendees discussed initiatives for developing stem cell therapies for diseases like cancer, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases that have overtaken HIV as the major cause of death in Africa
Stem cell research in the second largest country in Asia – China – has progressed significantly since the official policy on stem cells was announced in 2015. In fact, stem cell research has become a focal point for the government’s plan for developing the life sciences and biomedical sectors and there’s been an extraordinary amount of money put forth to equip laborites with the latest technology. It’s made an impact. If you look at international publication trends, between 2006 and 2010, China’s stem cell research output jumped from 176 articles to 677.
Elsewhere in Asia, the Indiana Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recently issued a revised draft of the National Guidelines for Stem Cell Research after noting the need for rigorous clinical trials and regulatory processes in developing safe and effective stem cell therapies. As a result, research on in-vitro cultures of intact human embryos beyond 14 days of fertilisation and research on xenogenic cells, xenogenic-human hybrids, modified human embryos, and germ-line stem cells have been banned.
Countries like Japan and Singapore are both seen as leaders in stem cell therapies and, though they might not have the outputs of China – are internationally recognized for the work they continue to do in the field.
Spain, Italy, Germany and – of course – the United Kingdom are all contributing to stem cell research in a big way. After scientists successfully cloned a sheep in Scotland back in 1996, Britain has been Europe’s leader.
Nonetheless, Italy and Germany both have some of Europe’s most restrictive legislation regarding stem cell research. Those two countries aren’t alone. Croatia, Lithuania, and Slovakia also have very restrictive policies. The rest of Europe is (for the most part) quite permissive, with Belgium, Sweden and the UK having the least restrictive policies and Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg and Poland having no legislation about hESCs at all.
As the global stem cell market grows, with an expected value of $270.5 Billion by 2025, North America’s market share also grows and is expected to be worth $167.33 by 2025. And, with 33 of the 50 people listed in ‘Most Influential People on Stem Cells Today’ being from North America, it’s clear that the United States and Canada are very involved in research for the stem cell therapeutics market.
There have never been any federal laws in the United States that have banned stem cell research, but there have been restrictions on funding and use. Although, certain restrictions were removed in 2009. In removing the restrictions, Former President Barack Obama had some foresight when he said ‘…We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.’
Nonetheless, stem cell research is still a politically charged issue in the United States and different states have different bans and restrictions.
Canada is contributing as well and, because of a $4 million investment by Canada’s Stem Cell Network in April of 2018, 24 projects involving stem cell research have been planned, involving 95 scientists across the country.
While the field isn’t growing at the same pace around the world, it’s clear that there is a global trend toward more appropriate restrictions and increased funding for stem cell research. For scientists and researchers and patients struggling with diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes, the progress is promising. It’s a global effort and, together, we have the potential to treat and even cure some of the most widespread diseases.