Even with their limited infrastructure, Iranian scientists have managed to isolate six human and eight mouse embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines over the past decade, and then successfully turn these cells into functional pancreatic, heart, splenic, and liver cells. "It's remarkable that they were able to do what they've done," Konrad Hochedlinger of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital told The Scientist. "They are clearly catching up."
Unlike many western countries, where religious wranglings have hindered the progress of ESC research, in Iran and other Islamic countries research involving embryos is relatively uncontroversial. Islamic law states that full human life begins only after the "ensoulment" of the fetus, which is defined in the Quran as 120 days after conception. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, even publicly endorsed human embryo research in 2002.
ESC research is "definitely an area where Iran could become a player, given the funding restrictions in the US," Ali Khademhosseini, a biomedical engineer at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in Cambridge, Mass., who was born in Iran and studies the field in his native country, told The Scientist. Because Iran got into the game earlier than neighboring countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are also starting to embrace stem cell technologies, "the stem cell science in Iran is pretty much more advanced than in any other country in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel."
Iran was the 10th country in the world to successfully isolate human ESCs in 2003, and the fifth country to reprogram human skin cells to an embryonic-like state to create so-called induced pluripotent stem cells last year. Other landmark achievements include coaxing human ESCs to become mature, insulin-producing cells in 2004, cloning the country's first sheep in 2006, and conducting the world's first human ESC proteomics study in 2006.
Most of these studies took place at Iran's leading stem cell research center, the Royan Institute in Tehran. Named after the Farsi word for embryo, the Royan Institute was originally established in 1991 as an infertility clinic. In 1998 it was converted into a cell-based research center, and it now covers basic and applied research in six different fields: stem cells, embryology, genetics, epidemiology, gynecology and andrology. Other Iranian research institutes are also actively engaged in studying stem cells, including the 34 members of the Iranian Molecular Medicine Network and the Shaheed Beheshti University of Medical Sciences in Tehran.