A collection of essays on the regulation of research on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) with the sober title of Differing Routes to Stem Cell Research: Germany and Italy may give the impression that it is addressed mainly to science policy experts. This impression is inaccurate. The book is an interesting contribution to the history of biomedical innovation in the second half of the twentieth century. Debates on embryonic stem cells mobilize strong emotions and can provide important insights on the status of “civic epistemology” (a term coined by political scientist Sheila Jasanoff) in a given society, that is, the way that society deals with complex decisions about new technologies. At the same time, as Hans Joerg Rheinberger explains, the dedifferentiation of somatic cells produced a new and potentially highly fruitful pathway for learning how cellular mechanisms work and opened new possibilities of experimentation on living human material. It remains to be seen, Rheinberger adds, however, if they will also open the way to better prevention and treatment of human disease.
Differing Routes to Stem Cell Research starts with two stimulating essays on the history of stem cells research. Adriane Dröcher analyzes the etymology of the term stem cell and its uses in the past 150 years, first in an anatomical and then in a physiological context. Her carefully researched essay shows how the notion of stem cell migrated from general biology to embryology, then to oncology, and finally to hopes of regenerative medicine. Christana Brandt examines the history of the notions of “reversibility” and “reprogramming” of cells, focusing on the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. These notions were already present in investigation of haemopoietic cells. They then became central to studies of in vitro fertilization, in animals and then in humans, to efforts to produce mouse embryo chimeras, and to experimental studies of cancer. One should remember, Brandt adds, that the history of stem cells was never straightforward nor linear. There are important [End Page 294] differences between animal and human stem cells, and between studies of carcinogenesis and of pluripotent stem cells originated from human embryos. Only the latter became the focus of intense ethical debates.
Both Italy and Germany put important restrictions on research on hESC. The legislation in other Western countries is more permissive. In his introduction to Differing Routes to Stem Cell Research, Renato Mazzoli proposes that the developments in Italy and Germany share many similarities because in both countries an aspiration to deal with a problematic past produced defensive strategies. Mazzoli may be right on a very general level, but specific case studies partly contradict his claim. Debates on the use of embryonic stem cells in Germany and Italy were, we learn in this book, quite different. Authors of the three essays on the German case provide a detailed analysis of regulation of stem cells in Germany and attempt to explain the forces that shaped German political debate on this topic. They present a globally positive vision of this debate, seen as an example of a successful participation of civil society in discussion on new technologies. They also argue that the limits imposed on the use of hESC in Germany did not seem to hamper German biomedical research.
Authors of the three essays dedicated to the Italian case display a less optimistic view. They criticize the quality of the debate on stem cells in Italy, point to important divisions among Italian scientists on this topic (by contrast, German scientists seem to hold a relatively uniform position), and insist on obstacles to free discussion created by the intervention of the Catholic Church. Unlike their German colleagues, Italian contributors to Differing Routes to Stem Cell Research believe that controversy regarding the use of hESC in Italy favored a regression in the public debate on science and technology. For example, one of the posters published by supporters of “non” in the 2005 referendum (i.e., those who rejected a more liberal use of hESC in Italy) showed...