This spring will see the launch of ZonMw’s Pluripotent Stem Cells for Inherited Diseases and Embryonic Research (PSIDER) programme, for which the Dutch health ministry has earmarked 35 million euros over the next eight years.

Researchers may submit proposals for studies of serious hereditary diseases and the development of alternative human embryo models for research into embryo development. All research projects will consider their ethical and social implications from the outset.

Pluripotent stem cells are cells that can evolve into any of the human body’s specialised cells. They can be obtained from embryos, and also from adult cells that have been reprogrammed to return to the pluripotent stem cell stage, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). ZonMw’s PSIDER programme will focus on iPSCs in relation to hereditary disease, and on the development of non-viable embryo-like models.

Hereditary conditions

‘For example, you can use stem cells to grow cell lines and mini organs, or organoids, which offer a lot of potential for scientific research’, says professor of medical ethics Evert van Leeuwen (Radboudumc), chair of the programme committee. ‘Research using pluripotent stem cells is suitable, among other things, for studying and possibly also treating serious hereditary conditions. We hope to give something back to society by eventually improving the lives of patients with certain severe hereditary disorders.’

Alternative embryo models

Research line 1 of the programme, the use of pluripotent stem cells for research into serious hereditary diseases, will focus on monogenic disorders. Examples include cystic fibrosis, thalassemia and certain metabolic disorders. ‘But hereditary factors play a role in many other conditions too, including psychiatric disorders. At a later stage, stem cell research might enable us to understand them better, too. The results from this programme might prove useful for other disorders in future. Non-monogenic disorders are outside the scope of the programme..’
The second research line of the programme aims to develop alternatives for the use of residual human embryos for scientific research. Examples of alternative embryo models include blastoids and gastruloids from iPSCs and non-viable embryos from iPSC germ cells.

International ambitions

PSIDER results from the current coalition agreement, in which the government expresses its ambition for the Netherlands to play a leading role in iPSC research for the prevention of hereditary disease. ‘The Netherlands has a great position to start from in this field, with top researchers like Professor Christine Mummery and Professor Hans Clevers. We also benefit from the good infrastructure and strong partnerships in the EU, with the United Kingdom and with the US’, Van Leeuwen adds. ‘But there is a lot of international competition, too. We hope this programme will boost research using pluripotent stem cells in the Netherlands. Knowledge is after all one of the key forms of currency these days, including in economic terms.’


"With this program we want to stimulate Dutch research on pluripotent stam cells. After all, knowledge is one of the most important exchange products nowadays, also in economic sense."

Ethical and social issues

The programme will be implemented within the legal framework that currently exists in the Netherlands, the key legislation in this context being the Embryo Act. However, the development of human embryo models from iPSCs is still at a fundamental stage, which means that certain moral issues still have to be explored. ‘We expect objections similar to those raised against the use of residual embryos from IVF procedures in scientific research,’ says Van Leeuwen, ‘so we will start with research proposals for ethical studies in this research line.’


To prevent projects from producing innovations that later meet with social or moral opposition, researchers in the ZonMw programme will have to consider these aspects from the very beginning. ‘Sometimes, in the past, scientists would come up with discoveries in the laboratory and publish them, and then society would have to decide what to do with them. We therefore only want to fund multidisciplinary research groups which include social scientists as well as biomedical scientists’, Van Leeuwen explains. He says it is not justified that more fundamental scientists see social and ethical issues as an obstacle for research. ‘The strength of this programme lies precisely in the fact that social acceptability will be considered. You need it to be able to take the next steps.’

Programme committee

The programme committee includes stem cell researchers, embryologists, and paediatricians and other medical professionals, and it is chaired by an expert in medical ethics. ‘I find this type of research interesting in both scientific and philosophical terms’, says Van Leeuwen. ‘I’ve explored it in a number of contexts before and I really look forward to participate in this research programme after my retirement. I hope to act as a connector. In the end, I hope that the programme can contribute to a positive social impact of the research with pluripotent stem cells.’

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