It all started with in vitro fertilization (IVF), developed in the late 1970s by Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards. There were fears of deformed babies, "playing God," and the prospect of unrelenting failure. But research continued, even as funding requests were rejected by U.K.'s Medical Research Council. The failures continued for several years—ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and premature births—but eventually there was a success, followed by another, and another, until the number of successes totaled some four million babies born with IVF.
The controversy never ceased, but new developments took the forefront: The growing supply of leftover embryos from IVF was being considered for research instead of destruction. In response, the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment was passed, banning federal funding for research involving the destruction of embryos. Two years later, Dr. James Thomson managed to create the first hESC line with funding from Geron. It was a landmark discovery, both scientifically and politically, and it circumvented the funding restriction by separating the embryo-destroying step from hESC research. George W. Bush's executive order in 2001 reestablished those limitations, and President Obama's executive order removed them, but the amendment still remains, and continued lawsuits and appeals threaten public funding for hESC research.
The case in Europe isn't any better. Last year an EU judgment disallowed patenting of products based on embryo-destroying research. Like Dickey-Wicker, there's a technology to circumvent it: Advanced Cell Technologies has announced that their nondestructive "single-blastomere" hESC line method doesn't fall under this definition. Of course, it's an arbitrary distinction—it leaves behind a viable embryo, but what are the odds that it will see a fate different from all the other excess IVF embryos?
France, in its 2011 bioethics law, allows hESC lines derived from IVF but bans implantation of research embryos; while ACT may not be subject to such laws it also would be unlikely to find a willing surrogate. Even Senomyx received criticism for using HEK cell lines to express flavor receptors for food additive testing; the cell line is derived from tissue excised from an aborted fetus over 30 years ago. ACT's nondestructive hESC method may be a breakthrough, but to their opponents it will likely seem like more of the same.