Leading the Way: Stem Cell Research in Sweden

As stem cells have emerged as one of today?s really hot topics, Swedish research groups and Swedish scientists working abroad have made several contributions that have pushed the field forward, including the discovery of dividing neuronal stem cells in the adult human brain. In addition, no fewer than 25 of the 78 embryonic stem cell lines approved by the National Institutes of Health for use in U.S. federal government-funded research are Swedish in origin, having been established at Göteborg University and the Karolinska Institute before President George W. Bush?s cut-off date of 9 August 2001.

According to a recent survey of Swedish stem cell research, commissioned by the Swedish Research Council (SRC), at least 100 post-Ph.D. scientists are active within the stem cell field in Sweden. They are members of more than 30 research groups around the country, although they are concentrated in ?hot spots? at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the Universities of Göteborg and Lund, where centres for stem cell research are being created. The survey report?s authors acknowledge that Swedish stem cell research has attracted great international attention, and that the papers published are of high quality. However, they also point out that the number of scientific publications produced within the stem cell field is lower than one would expect if compared to the total contribution made by Swedish researchers in the field of biomedicine.

So what can be done to improve the situation for Swedish stem cell researchers? That increased funding is necessary comes as no surprise, but collaboration between research groups also needs improvement. In addition, the investigators identify the need to create more research positions, especially at the postdoctoral level, because a relatively large number of Ph.D. students is expected to graduate within the next couple of years.

This is certainly something that Clas B. Johansson would like to see. Johansson, a researcher on neuronal stem cells, recently completed his Ph.D. at the Karolinska Institute. However, he has concerns. ?The tradition in Sweden is to do a postdoc abroad,? he points out, but ?it ought to be equally qualifying to do a postdoc in a good lab in Sweden.? His hint that, in general, it is not regarded as a good career move to stay in Sweden for postdoctoral training could mean that extra posts will be hard to fill. After all, he adds, it is ?difficult to get really good postdocs to come to Sweden [from abroad],? possibly because, he speculates, Sweden is relatively unknown, at least outside Europe, and the salary levels are lower than in other countries. And simply creating more postdoc positions is not sufficient, suggests Johansson. He hopes that funding agencies will put more money into 2- to 3-year grants for young scientists coming off postdoctoral training, ?to make it really attractive for young scientists to return to Sweden? and to help them set up their own laboratories.

It is fortunate, then, that the field has recently seen a major cash injection in the form of a joint programme that involves the SRC, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRF), and the Swedish Association of Diabetics Research Fund (SADRF). Running over the next 5 years, it will provide Swedish stem cell research with US$7.5 million (?8.14 million) of which the JDRF, the world?s leading nonprofit, nongovernmental funder of diabetes research, will contribute $5 million (?5.43 million). ?Swedish researchers are at the forefront in the field of stem cells. The agreement strengthens the great potential for development that exists here,? said Stefan Leufstedt, chair of SADRF, of the new programme. The derivation and characterisation of new embryonic stem cell lines and the regulation of cell differentiation will be on the research agenda, as well as studies on the ethical and legal aspects of human stem cell research.

One factor in Sweden?s rise to pre-eminence in this field has undoubtedly been its relatively liberal approach. Currently, there is no legislation that specifically regulates stem cell research in Sweden. Instead, ongoing research is controlled through already existing laws governing transplantation and reproductive research. Nonetheless, the SRC?s report emphasises the importance of passing regulations governing intellectual property aspects of stem cell research to ensure that material and results will be readily accessible to scientists in the future. These questions have been getting more attention lately, as commercial interest in stem cell research is booming.

And the subject of somatic nuclear transfer, sometimes called therapeutic cloning, has been stirring the emotions of the Swedish public, too. In its ethical guidelines for stem cell research, published in December last year, the SRC concedes that the creation of embryos through somatic nuclear transfer is deemed ethically defensible due to ?the prospect of major long-term advances in treating diseases.? However, it is not permissible under current law. A few weeks later, the Swedish minister of health and social affairs, Lars Engqvist, and Thomas Östros, the minister of education and science, stated the government?s view on therapeutic cloning: ?We are in favour of somatic nuclear transfer provided it is done under ethically acceptable conditions.? Engqvist and Östros said that work on the necessary additions to the legislation needed to control stem cell research would be initiated. They added that, while it would be important for the new law to be ?open to developments in research,? at the same time it must clearly rule out cloning of humans for reproductive purposes. Implementing the new laws could take some time though, considering that a proposition is not expected before the general election in September.

Despite such legal snags, ?as a whole, Swedish research on stem cells is very good,? confirms Johansson. Provided the recommended employment opportunities come through, the country looks set to take on the challenges of the new millennium.

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