Stem cells are cells that renew themselves by dividing and multiplying and can mature into various cell types with different, specific functions. They therefore have the potential to renew cells and tissues in our body. The blood-forming stem cells in our bone marrow, for example, produce the entire range of blood cells, i.e. red and white blood corpuscles and platelets.
This characteristic of stem cells is already being used for in vitro tests of new medicinal products, for disease models, to estimate the safety of medicines and also to treat diseases.
Adult stem cells are used in bone marrow transplants, for example. They are capable of differentiating into different blood cells, but cannot form other types of cells such as nerve cells. Research needs to use embryonic stem cells to grow specific cell types, tissues or even entire organs that play a valuable part in therapy, replacing diseased tissues and organs in the body. These cells have the potential to form all the cells in the body. It is hoped that one day embryonic stem cells will mature into heart, nerve and muscle cells and help to find new approaches to the therapy of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. At the moment, this is still a vision of the future. If it is to become reality, it must be possible to use stem cells in research.
Stem Cell Research Act (StRA)
The legal framework for stem cell research in Switzerland is formed by the Stem Cell Research Act (StRA) that has been in force since 2005. It regulates the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from embryos that are superfluous to requirements as well as research with embryonic stem cells. Superfluous embryos are a by-product of in vitro fertilisation, a process used in medically assisted reproduction. The current law requires them to be destroyed. The Stem Cell Research Act stipulates the strict conditions under which embryonic stem cells for research purposes may be harvested from some of these superfluous embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. It is forbidden to create embryos for research purposes in Switzerland. The aim of the Stem Cell Research Act is to prevent misuse and preserve human dignity.