Embryonic Stem Cells: Hope or Hype?

Last spring and summer, a flurry of media coverage surrounded the issue of research involving embryonic stem cells. With alarming frequency, news reports heralded potential cures for illnesses such as Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal injury and other diseases through the use of embryonic stem cells.

What are stem cells? They are a sort of master cell that can be made to develop into a variety of cells. The earliest stem cells, referred to as totipotent, have the potential to form a whole human being. A few days later, these cells now called pluripotent begin to specialize and can give rise to most tissu
es and organs found in the human body.

 

How are human embryonic stem cells obtained? Frozen embryos created as a result of in-vitro fertilization and kept in cold storage are the primary source. When the stem cells are removed from the inner cell mass
of the embryo, the embryo dies. Killing this living embryo at day 4 or 5 or at any stage of development is killing a living human. Alternate sources of stem cells exist and can be harvested without the destruction of early human life. We support research to alleviate human suffering but not at the expense of another human being.

Anyone who tries to point out that the therapeutic applications of embryonic stem cell research are uncertain is portrayed as insensitive to the suffering of others. Yet, we would do well to remember past promises of cures through the use of fetal cells. In the early 1990's, scientists hoped that the transplantation of fetal cells from aborted babies into the brains of Parkinson's patients would help to regenerate damaged tissue and produce dopamine. The results were tragic. In early March 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that this treatment had resulted in failure. Some patients were made worse, 15% ended up writhing and jerking uncontrollably as a result of the treatment. Dr. Paul Green, a researcher in the study and a neurologist at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, called the results "absolutely devastating...They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, their wrists flex and distend... it was tragic, catastrophic. It's a real nightmare. And we can't selectively turn it off". Dr. Green also indicated: "No more fetal transplants. We are absolutely and adamantly convinced that this should be considered for research only. And whether it should be research in people is an open question."

And what of these reports trumpeting the possibility of treatments for various diseases through the use of human embryonic stem cells? Dr. David A. Prentice, a professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University, adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine remarked in an article entitled "Unstable promises of embryonic stem cells" (July 2001, National Right To Life News): "Proponents of stem cell research in humans make extravagant promises of cures for a multitude of diseases, based on the assumption that they will be able to form any of the 210 tissues of the human body from a starting dish of embryonic stem cells. In point of fact, they have had very few successes along those lines even in the culture dish or in mice...More and more it is looking like it will be difficult for embryonic stem cells to make good on their promises of therapeutic benefits for human patients."

In its recent newsletter entitled "Stemming the news flow", May 2001, The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non- partisan research organisation devoted to the accurate use of scientific research in public policy debates was critical of the media's coverage of the stem cell debate. It noted the following: "Eagerness to publicize embryo-related breakthroughs is understandable but as political stakes were elevated, the subsequent silence on non-embryo developments was striking. Medical advances will continue whether the media attends to them or not. But policy decisions and public comprehension are not served by selective attention (whether by the political right or left) to research on grounds other than strictly scientific merit".

Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville asks if allowing the use of frozen embryos from I.V.F. will lead to the creation of extra embryos: "But will researchers feel pressure to make more embryos than required to have some left over?" (National Post, April 4, 2001).

On the other hand, the good news for research on alternative sources of stem cells marches on. You should know that so far virtually all of the current benefits to patients have come from non- destructive stem cell sources. Some alternative sources of stem cells are: adult bone marrow cells, umbilical cords and placentas from live births, blood and brain cells of adults - all of which can provide stem cells without necessitating the destruction of human life. As mentioned in an article in the Washington Times, July 31, 2001, entitled Embryonic stem cell research alternatives exist: use them, "On July 24th, researchers in Rostock, Germany announced that two weeks before they had successfully transplanted stem cells into the heart of a man whom, they report is now doing well. The problem? The cells came from the man's own marrow. No embryos were harmed in the making of this miracle."

At McMaster University, researchers achieved a major breakthrough in spinal cord repair in August 2001 by using intestinal stem cells from adults to regenerate damaged sensory nerves in the spinal cord. Researchers at McGill University have developed a way to harvest stem cells from skin. These stem cells came from the skin of an adult human's scalp and the skin of adult mice. These cells are capable of growing into brain cells and a range of other tissues. This research as published in the August 2001 issue of Nature Cell Biology found that the cells harvested at McGill have grown into smooth muscle cells, fat cells and brain cells.

Ronald Worton, scientific director of the Ottawa Health Research Institute and head of Canada's stem cell network said this is the first time that brain cells have been grown from stem cells found in skin. Patients will face fewer problems with rejection with stem cells taken from their own bodies. A press release from McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) points out that this discovery means a "non-controversial source of stem cells that can produce a number of different cell types, including the type of cells needed to potentially help patients recover from a spinal cord injury or Parkinson's disease." It offers new hope for neurological disorders.


Yet another encouraging study on advances in adult stem cells reports: "The ultimate adult stem cell appears to have been discovered– a cell in the bone marrow that can transform itself into almost any organ in the body, according to a new study by New York University School of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine and John Hopkins School of Medicine researchers...‘There is a cell in the bone marrow that can serve as the stem cell for most, if not all, of the organs in the body,' says Neil Theise, M.D, Associate Professor of Pathology at NYU school of Medicine who co-led the study...'It had been thought that only embryonic stem cells had such wide ranging potential ,' says Dr. Thiese of NYU School of Medicine. ‘However, this study provides the strongest evidence yet that the adult body harbours stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells,' he says."

Researchers and scientists should take full advantage of the ethical alternatives which adult stem cells and other sources of stem cells offer for curing disease. It is important to note that it is science proving the case for non-embryonic stem cell research not pro-lifers. $7 million dollars in research has been allocated for the Centre for Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Research being built in Ottawa. Let's hope this money is used to look for alternatives to embryonic stem cell research. However small, human embryos are human beings deserving respect and dignity. Once we become willing to sacrifice one life to benefit another, there is no place to stop.

Action Life Online Article

Published in Stem Cell Research