Embryonic stem cells are highly-prized because they can turn into any type of cell in the body, like heart cells, muscles or neurons. However, the research is controversial because it can involve destroying embryos and raises the vexed question of when life begins .
As a result, successive governments have failed to grapple with this area of stem cell research and the wider field of assisted human reproduction.
This is despite the recommendations of advisory groups and State bodies over the course of a decade or more.
Ireland is one of the few European countries that does not have legislation or meaningful regulation to guide this kind of research.
This gap leaves scientists caught in a web of ethical uncertainty – at a time when the State’s official policy is to promote research and development in these kinds of cutting-edge fields.
Ironically, there’s no law or Constitutional obstacle standing in the way of embryonic stem cell research. In 2009 the Supreme Court ruled in Roche vs Roche – an embryo custody case – that the Constitution did not offer protection to the embryo once it was outside the womb.
"In essence, there is no legal hurdle," says Deirdre Madden, a senior lecturer in law at University College Cork and who has sat on various Government advisory bodies. "The real obstacle, as I understand it, remains in the area of funding due to the lack of legislative support."
For example, Science Foundation Ireland – the main source of funding for researchers in the area of leading edge technology – says it is not in a position to fund research using human embryonic stem cells until there is legislation governing the area.
The Irish Stem Cell Foundation argues that the legislative gap is damaging investment and job creation, and threatening our global competitiveness
Legislation was recommended in a report from the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, published eight years ago, but has never been enacted. .
The Irish Council for Bio-Ethics also produced recommendations to legislate for embryonic stem cell research, subject to strict conditions . Its recommendations were never acted on - and the body was abolished as a result of funding cutbacks.
The current administration has pledged to introduce stem-cell legislation as part of its Programme for Government , though no draft laws have yet materialised.
Despite this week’s breakthrough, however, demand for embryonic cell research may well be less now than it was several years ago. This is because scientists can now use adult skin cells to create a stem cell that is very similar to embryonic cells, but without the need for embryos.
These re-programmed cells – called “ pluripotent stem cells” - also sidestep vexed ethical issues such as the destruction of human embryos.
It’s early days, though. Attempts to use either type of cell for therapy are continuing and it isn’t clear yet which will turn out to be most effective.
Adult stem cells, taken from blood, fat or other parts of the body, are another possible option.
In fact, reseachers linked to NUI Galway are making big strides in research using adult stem cells.
The Regenerative Medicine Institute, a partnership between scientists, clinicians and industry, is due to begin clinical trials next year of therapies that could play a key role in tackling aspects of illnesses such as diabetes.