Stem cells could possibly cure very serious long‑term diseases. In diseases where particular cells die as the disease progresses - pluripotent stem cells may be used to grow into cells of the same type. The newly made cells can then be transplanted to the patient to replace the lost cells. Several cell therapies based on mature cells made from pluripotent stem cells are currently being tested in patients.
Novo Nordisk wants to develop new stem cell-based therapies to help patients with serious long-term diseases that will allow us to continue to offer life-changing treatments in the future. For example, Type I diabetes often affects very young people who then need to use insulin for the rest of their lives. An alternative treatment that would relieve these patients from the burden of the disease and its complications is very attractive. Young patients and their families therefore have a strong belief in the possibilities of treatment with cell therapy using stem cells.
The use of human embryonic stem cells raises ethical issues because the cells come from a fertilised human egg. Some consider it unethical to deal with human embryonic stem cells in a lab. We make our decisions based on balancing the benefits to patients and society and the possible threat of overlooking our values and ethical codes. Importantly, we only use stem cells that come from eggs that would not otherwise be used and have been donated by people after giving their informed consent. Once the stem cells have been extracted from the fertilised egg, these cells are kept in the lab and can be used to create new cells. This could possibly serve as an unlimited cell source.
Novo Nordisk recognises and respects that research areas involving ethical issues need to be thoroughly discussed in society. We would like to be part of an open discussion about understanding the ethical and legal issues in the use of human embryonic stem cells. As a company, we find it important to share information on the issue to ensure a rational and informed debate rather than one based upon wrong assumptions.
Novo Nordisk is committed to do research to find a cure for diabetes and other serious long-term diseases. Stem cells present a unique opportunity that is important to be involved in.
Pluripotent stem cells have the potential to develop into the 220 to 240 different cell types that make up the human body but they cannot develop into a full human being.
The immature pluripotent stem cells may form benign tumours (known as “teratomas”), when they are injected or transplanted. If mature cells formed from pluripotent stem cells are to be given to patients, all relevant precautions must be in place to ensure patient safety.
In some countries you are allowed to create an embryo that is identical to the person who has donated cell material. This is a process called “therapeutic cloning” and it means you can create stem cells that are compatible with the original donor. This method holds the potential for misuse - to clone a human being. Novo Nordisk is not involved in any research or development that involves therapeutic cloning.
In Denmark it has been legal to use embryonic stem cells since 2003 – meaning that it is possible to use unused fertilised eggs from patients undergoing fertility treatment (IVF) provided the donor gives their informed consent. Novo Nordisk was active in the debate prior to the 2003 law change.
The clinical testing of cell therapies based on human pluripotent stem cells needs to follow the strict safety protocols required by regulatory authorities.
Research in stem cells is constantly refined and new unexpected findings may evolve. Therefore, we need to follow the development closely and continue the ethical debate about the use of stem cells.
We will see situations where we need to make decisions even though the answers are not clear and scientists may not always agree on the risks and benefits. It may for example be argued that using embryonic stem cells is the same as organ donation.
We need to carefully evaluate the concerns raised around the use of embryonic stem cells and take these into consideration when we frame our position. New facts may be brought to light that would call for a change in our position, it is an active process.