Stem cell therapy is the wave of the future. It is already showing incredible potential for treating a wide array of diseases, injuries, and other conditions. Stem cell researchers hope to be able to use stem cells to foster a new level of resiliency, longevity, and overall health in all of humanity.

One of the most versatile types of stem cells are human embryonic stem cells. However, use of human-derived cells for research has raised a lot of ethical questions and many people do not fully understand the mechanisms behind this type of research.

To ensure ethical procedures in all research facilities, and assuage the moral fears of the public, guidelines have been established in the medical community regarding the safe and ethical usage of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Here is a brief summary of those guidelines, so you can better understand the potential and safety of this powerful form of research.

What Are Human Embryonic Stem Cells?

Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells of the body, progenitor cells that are capable of creating the specialized cells that will carry out every function in every system f the body. Up until recently, stem cells were derived only from bone marrow and fetuses. These types of stem cells come with several challenges, including a high risk of recipient rejection, a relatively low level of programmability, and a limited supply chain.

Human embryonic stem cells present a new, more malleable and sustainable source for stem cells. Rather than being drawn from developing fetuses or invasively extracted from adult bone marrow, hESCs are extracted from the inner cell mast of blastocysts, embryos that are just a few days old. HESCs are capable of dividing for a long period of time without differentiating into specialized cells, making them particularly useful for curing disease.

It is important to note that though hESCs are derived from human embryos, they are not themselves embryos, and would not develop into human fetuses. This is one of the major guidelines governing hESC research that researchers only work with cells that would not otherwise develop into fetuses.

Ethical Standards for hESC Donation

The other main tenets of the guidelines state that the hESCs come only from embryos that are a by-product of reproductive attempts. The embryos cannot have been developed purely for the sake of research, but rather only by people attempting to conceive using in vitro fertilization methods. Every possible option for a successful conception should have been attempted before the potential for donation was even mentioned to the donor. Only after it has been determined that such embryos will not be used for conception can the possibility of donating them for stem cell research be considered.

Potential donors must give voluntary, written consent for the by-product embryos to be used for research purposes, knowing that the embryos will be used to develop hESCs. These donors must be informed of many things in the consent process, including the fact that they will receive no payment for the donation and may never benefit from the research (though it is okay if they someday do benefit from medical treatments derived from that research), that the companies conducting the research may one day profit from it, and that the donors cannot make any restrictions or directions regarding who may receive benefit from the research and future use of hESCs.

Guidelines for hESC Research

While hESC research may be used to explore treating a wide variety of illnesses and conditions, there are many instances where it cannot be used. HESC research cannot be used to develop human embryos, or in any type of human cloning experimentation.

This is an important guideline to emphasize, as the majority of resistance to hESC research is based on the belief that it will be used to clone people. To reiterate, scientists are only to use this research for healing disease, injury, and the effects of aging; testing new drugs for safety and efficacy; and observing cellular development NOT cloning people or producing embryos that might develop into people.

In addition, this type of research may not be used to implant human-derived pluripotent or totipotent cells into living human subjects. Researchers are not allowed to create chimeras, animals that are part-human, by introducing pluripotent human stem cells into non-human animals. And the results of the research can never be implanted into a human or non-human primate uterus.

The field of hESC is just beginning, but it holds the potential to allow treatment and healing of diseases at the most basic level possible. Altering the processes of cellular development at the embryonic level has the capacity to shift our entire relationship to disease and health. But such research must be conducted in line with strict ethical guidelines, to protect the donors and future recipients of such research. Luckily, such guidelines have been created, allowing this groundbreaking research to continue in safe and ethical ways.


National Institutes of Health
International Society for Stem Cell Research