Stephen Kintz
May 6, 2012

Embryonic stem cell research around the globe

National policies are determining the fate of embryonic stem cell research across the world.In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted former President George Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research utilizing new sources of embryonic cells. Unfortunately, since President Obama lifted the ban, the federal government has been embroiled in an exhaustive court battle over the fate of embryonic stem cell research. Since the court is not expected to reach a decision for several months, the future of federal funding for embryonic stem is uncertain. Yet how is embryonic stem cell research looking for the rest of the world? Is the future of embryonic stem cell research bright, or is the rest of the world also embedded in a long ethical debate? Is the United States being hampered by it embryonic stem cell policies?

While there have been many ethical debates about embryonic stem cell research across the globe, many developed nations, especially in Western Europe, have taken full advantage of new embryonic cells lines since 2005. This was illustrated in a map created by William Hoffman from the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Minnesota, which highlights countries with flexible embryonic stem cell research policies. While a 2010 map takes President Barack Obama’s executive order into account, most countries have been developing and federally funding new sources of stem cells for half a decade before the United States.

According to Science Progress, China hopes to be a major player in embryonic stem cell research; and since Chinese culture does not view the embryo as sacred or embody it with personhood, the Chinese have some of the most permissive stem cell policies in the world. China is using its permissive stem cell research policies and generous financing ($293 million dollars from 2006 to 2011) to spur scientific advances. During 2006 to 2008, China saw their publications in stem cell research go from 36 publications to 1,116 publications. In fact, China’s stem cell culture is growing so rapidly that it is now dealing with unlicensed stem cell clinics and unregulated clinical trials. If China cannot regulate this market, many of the treatments developed in China might not meet the standards of Western medicine and, therefore, could not be sold in the West.

Research on human embryonic stem cells, like those shown here, has stirred controversy in many nations.Of course, while China’s growth is one of the most impressive, other countries are hoping to compete with the economic giant. South Korea is increasing spending on stem cell research by $29 million dollars to $88 million dollars a year. Most of this research will go toward funding projects in rare and incurable diseases that have trouble being funded from other sources. Canada is another top player in stem cell research, and it recently established the “See the Potential” program, which aims to fund several postdoc positions within Canada.

Of course, as I mentioned, while there are many countries like China, South Korea and Canada that have created thriving stem cell industries, many other nations, according to the Pew Forum, have been bogged down by ethical debates. Brazil tried to permit embryonic stem cell research on excess in vitro fertilized stem cells in 2005 but could not overcome court battles until 2008. France originally had embryonic research banned but gave scientists a five-year window to conduct embryonic stem cell research. Germany has a more restrictive policy on embryonic stem cell research than the United States.

So the world is still somewhat divided on the ethical implications of stem cells. Yet, it does appear that within a decade most of the world has started to developed embryonic research programs. More importantly, many countries are starting to focus on these programs because of the lucrative medical advances that stem cells promise. The future appears bright for stem cell research in most nations, and only a few nations appear to be embroiled in the same ethical debates that consume America. If this progress continues, embryonic stem cell research will become a part of most nations’ research programs.

So do America’s policies on embryonic stem cell research hamper the research? It is impossible to say. America is a juggernaut of scientific research. The United States spent 405 billion dollars on research and development in 2011; China, the next highest spender, only spent 154 billion dollars. America also still has 11,724 researchers working on stem cell research. This is more researchers than Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Canada, France, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands combined. Even in 2006, during America’s most restrictive policies on stem cell research, America had the most top rated laboratories of any country.

So it is impossible to say that America’s restrictive policies hurt stem cell research. However, with the ever increasing competition, both economically and scientifically, it seems obvious that if America does not take research seriously, its top spot in stem cell research might be in jeopardy.