Two decades in embryonic stem cells

Stem Cells

Published 22 March 2019

Cristina Eguizabal, Co-ordinator of ESHRE's SIG Stem Cells, looks back from the twentieth anniversary of the derivation of the first human embryonic stem cells.

It is now 20 years since the first embryonic stem cell lines were developed, and the anniversary will be marked by ESHRE's SIG Stem Cells at a precongress course at this year's Annual Meeting in Vienna, where several prominent researchers of the past two decades will take part.

Embryonic stem cells (ESC) are pluripotent cells isolated from an early pre-implantation embryo and are grown as a cell line in a tissue culture dish. Their discovery came from the combination of previous studies in human pathology, mouse genetics, early mouse embryo development, cell surface immunology and tissue culture. Hence, ESC provided a crucial tool to study human genetics, modelling, development and physiology.

Stem cells have not only revolutionised experimental mammalian genetics but have now opened up new therapeutic pathways in regenerative medicine. The derivation of the first human ESC lines 20 years ago hailed an explosion of public interest in stem cells, yet this achievement depended on prior decades of research on mouse ESCs. In turn, the recent derivation of mouse and human iPS cells - by reprogramming somatic cells or from human SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) embryos - depended on earlier studies on mouse and human ESCs.

Both human ESCs and iPSCs can self-renew indefinitely in vitro while maintaining the ability to differentiate into advanced derivatives of all three germ layers. These features are very useful for understanding the differentiation and function of human tissues, for drug screen and toxicity testing, and for cellular transplantation therapies in regenerative medicine.

In our recently published review in HROpen, members of the SIG Stem Cells members and colleagues looked back over the history of human pluripotent stem cell derivation in the context of the scientific and technical environment at the time, and went on to give a historical account of research developments with a special focus on regenerative medicine and clinical applications.(1) We also organised e-mail and telephone interviews with several stem cell pioneers who were at the forefront of both basic and clinical research to offer a qualitative read of the field, as well as perspectives on future developments.

This 20th anniversary of the derivation of hESC lines offers an ideal opportunity to look back over the past two decades in the field to look forward to what the future may hold. We hope the anniversary will inspire young investigators today to continue working their research in this fascinating field.

1. Eguizabel C, Aran B, Chuva de Sousa Lopes S, et al. Two decades of embryonic stem cells: a historical overview. Hum Reprod Open 2019; 1: hoy024.