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Durham University

Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease

Historicizing Stem Cells

Discussions on stem cell research usually take as their starting point the year 1998. This was when researchers reported the first successful isolation of human pluripotent stem cell lines (cell lines that can differentiate into various tissues) from donated IVF embryos and aborted embryos. However, stem cell research predates this by over a hundred years.

One particular aspect is the way this research developed in two different strands: embryonic and adult stem cell research. This project considers the origins of those dual strands and the way they have been influenced by different medical, social, ethical, and legal implications. It will cover the period from the late 19th to the early 21st century.

In addition to different scientific traditions, ethical implications have affected the progress of the two strands of research. Although embryonic stem cells have greater scope than adult stem cells, in that they can differentiate into a wider range of tissues, their potential uses are effectively the same. Research pathways have diverged in part because of the ethical issues surrounding the use of embryos as opposed to adult stem cells, which are obtained from bone marrow or skin. This has led to different regulatory frameworks and can influence the attractiveness of the research areas not only to researchers but also to funding organizations.

A key part of the interdisciplinary research will be interviews with researchers who have been influential in stem cell research. Archived material will also be extensively studied. It is expected to lead to a much greater understanding of the way stem cell research developed in different directions. This, in turn, should illuminate differences and similarities between the research strands and could lead to more collaboration.

Research Team
Principal investigator:
Professor Holger Maehle
Wolfson fellowsProfessor Holger Maehle
Other Durham University researchers:  Cheryl Lancaster
Funding: Christopherson/Knott Foundation Fellowship
Dates: Pilot 2010; anticipated further work 2011 - 2017
Keywords: stem cell research; cell biology; embryo; history; ethics


'Historicizing Stem Cells: The Emergence of the Concept around 1900', Annual Meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine', Philadelphia, 28 April - 1 May 2011. 

'Historicising a medical technology of the future: the emergence of the stem cell concept and the connection with tumour research', Anglo-American Conference 'Health in History', Institute of Historical Research, London, 29 June - 1 July 2011.


Maehle, A H, 'Ambiguous cells: the emergence of the stem cell concept in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries', Notes & Records of the Royal Society 65 (2011): 359-378