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Will stem cell research on humans be allowed in Germany in the future?




Photo: Nissim Benvenisty (Follow the Money – The Politics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Russo E, PLoS Biology Vol. 3/7/2005, e234), CC BY 2.5

This question suggests that there is a general ban on stem cell research on humans, which, however, is not the case. In fact, stem cell research on humans has been common practice in Germany for decades. A big breakthrough in human stem cell research was made, for example, in the 1980s, with the transplantation of human bone marrow stem cells into patients to restore bone marrow after high doses of radiation as part of cancer therapy. The simpler, less invasive procedure of blood stem cell transplantation was later developed, also for use in cancer therapy. The transplanted stem cells form a new immune system in the recipient, which can ward off infections and also keep any remaining cancer cells in check.
Stem cells are currently being searched for in all human tissues and organs. Once discovered, they are harvested, investigated and in some cases, as described above, transplanted. The situation is different for stem cells from human embryos, which this question probably implicitly refers to. This is basically forbidden in Germany by the Embryo Protection Law and only allowed by the Stem Cell Act for especially valuable research, following an application to the relevant authorities and on the condition that considerable restrictions and constraints are observed. It actually now looks like the new technique of “reprogramming” cells will, in the long term, make human embryo stem cell research unnecessary. This technique enables almost any cell in the body to be taken back to a kind of original state, similar to that of an early embryo. These cells can then redevelop into almost any kind of tissue – be it skin, bone or heart. To sum up, stem cell research on humans is not only allowed, it is being carried out intensively, and it has the potential to improve treatments for serious illnesses in the future.

This question was answered by Tobias Grimm, Programme Director of Life Sciences 1 at the head office of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in Bonn and specialist consultant on stem cell research.