Adult Stem Cells: It's Not Pie-in-the-Sky
by Carrie Gordon Earll
Embryonic stem cells have not cured or successfully treated a single patient. Contrast that with the more than 70 conditions that are treatable using non-embryonic stem cell therapies.
One of the hottest debates in bioethics today surrounds research using stem cells taken from either in vitro fertilization or cloned human embryos. From state legislatures and the halls of Congress to the United Nation, the controversy over whether to ban (or fund) such research rages.
Human cloning for embryonic stem cell research creates human embryos virtually identical to a patient’s genetic composition. The embryo’s stem cells are then harvested — a process that always destroys the embryo. The same fatal process to collect human embryonic stem cells is also used to destroy embryos formed by in vitro fertilization.
Speculation regarding the scientific promise of human embryonic stem cells leads some to dismiss the ethical questions raised by the embryo's destruction. However, embryonic stem cells (human or animal) have not “cured” or treated a single human patient.
Fortunately, there are alternative sources of stem cells for research that do not require the destruction of human life.
Non-embryonic (or adult) stem cells are readily available in sources such as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, the pancreas and brain, and no lives are lost in the collection process. Currently, more than 70 identified diseases and disabilities that are treatable using non-embryonic stem cells, including breast cancer, leukemia and sickle cell anemia. 1 Researchers also have successfully treated patients with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, heart damage and spinal cord injuries using non-embryonic stem cell sources.
Adult stem cells provide tangible results to patients today. Consider these examples:
Tangible Therapies for Today
Acute Myloid Leukemia – Sixteen-year-old Nathan Salley is alive today, thanks to stem cells from umbilical cord blood. Nathan told a congressional subcommittee, "I am living proof that there are promising and useful alternatives to embryonic stem cell research. . . . Embryonic stem cell research did not save me – cord blood research did."2
Diabetes – Eleven out of 15 Type 1 diabetes patients are "completely off insulin" after receiving adult pancreatic cell transplants.3
Diabetes – Researchers at Harvard Medical School used animal adult stem cells to grow new islet cells to combat diabetes. Researcher Denise Faustman recalled, "It was astonishing! We had reversed the disease without the need for transplants." Plans for human trials are underway.4
Heart Disease – German heart specialist Bodo Eckehard Strauer successfully treated a heart patient using stem cells from the man's bone marrow: "Even patients with the most seriously damaged hearts can be treated with their own stem cells instead of waiting and hoping on a transplant," Dr. Strauer explained.5
Heart Disease - "Four out of five seriously sick Brazilian heart-failure patients no longer needed a heart transplant after being treated with their own stem cells." 6
Heart Disease - “Patients with heart failure experienced a marked improvement after being given injections of their own stem cells,” thanks to research at the University of Pittsburgh. 7
Heart Disease - Dr. Eduardo Marban, chief of cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, called the use of adult stem cells to treat failing hearts, “[t]he single most exciting development in cardiology in the last decade.” 8
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – Thirty-six-year old Susan Stross is one of more than 20 MS patients whose conditions have remained steady or improved after receiving an adult stem cell transplant. The same results are reported with several hundred patients worldwide.9
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - Research conducted by Dr. Mark Freedman at the University of Ottawa suggests that most of the 32 MS patients in the trial “experienced clinical stabilization or improvement of symptoms.” 10
Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma – Forty-year-old Mark Fulford was not a match for a conventional bone marrow transplant, so doctors turned to stem cells found in umbilical cord blood. "There are people alive now who wouldn't have been without this, and I'm living proof."11
Paralysis/Spinal Cord Injury - There are nearly 60 documentable cases of quadripelgic and parapelgic patients who have regained some mobility, bladder control, and sensation in their limbs after recieving adult stem cell transplants from cord blood, bone marrow, and nasal tissue. Here are 5 of those success stories:
After sustaining paralyzing spinal cord injuries, Susan Fajt, Laura Dominguez and Erica Nader of the U.S. are each regaining muscle control and walking with the aid of braces due to stem-cell transplants from their own nasal cavities conducted in Portugal. Six paralyzed Russian patients are also walking thanks to a similar therapy. 12
Maria da Graca Pomeceno of Brazil regained her ability to walk and talk after a bone marrow stem-cell transplant from her pelvis. 13
Treatment using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood allow Hwang Mi-Soon of South Korean to walk again with the aid of a walker. “This is already a miracle for me,” says Mi-Soon. 14
Parkinson’s Disease - A California man with Parkinson's disease experienced more than an 80 percent reduction in his symptoms after he received an injection of his own neuronal (brain) stem cells. Dennis Turner says before the treatment, “I couldn’t put my contact lenses in without a big problem. Now it’s not problem.” 15
Sickle Cell Anemia – In his struggle against sickle cell anemia, seventeen-year old Keone Penn experienced suicidal thoughts before an umbilical cord blood transplant cured him of the disease. Today, Penn says, “Sickle cell is now part of my past…Cord blood saved my life.” 16
Stroke - Catholic University of Korea researchers report “great improvement in the paralysis symptoms and speech disorders” in three of five stroke patients who received transplants with their own bone marrow stem cells. 17
Stroke - Brazilian doctors will test a similar treatment on 15 patients after encouraging results with one stroke patient. 18
Promise for Tomorrow
Reports of "Master Stem Cell" discoveries –
"A stem cell has been found in adults that can turn into every single tissue in the body. It might turn out to be the most important cell ever discovered."19
Researchers at New York University School of Medicine announced, "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. . . . This study provides the strongest evidence yet that the adult body harbors stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells."20
McGill University researchers discover "stem cells deep in the skin of rats and humans that can become fat, muscle or even brain cells. . . . Scientists are driven by the hope of bringing science closer to treatments for spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, heart disease and brain disorders — treatments made from patients' own cells."21
These are stem cells from adult bone marrow that do not trigger rejection, "even after the cells differentiate into specialized tissues such as bone or fat." The "cells seem to go only to damaged areas . . . (turning) into heart muscle, blood vessels, and fibrous tissue." 22
In addition to these studies, ongoing research has demonstrated the flexibility of adult stem cells to change into every cell type of the body. For more information, see What the Media Won't Tell You About Stem Cell Research.
(This page was originally posted on September 12, 2003.)
Carrie Gordon Earll is the Senior Policy Analyst for Bioethics at Focus on the Family and a fellow with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
1National Marrow Donor Program, "Diseases Treatable by Stem Cell Transplant," National Marrow Donor Program
2"Teenager testifies he's ‘living proof' of stem-cell option, Denver Post, July 22, 2001.
3 "Cell grafts lend freedom to diabetics," Medical Post, June 19, 2001.
4"Adult stem cells effect a cure," Harvard University Gazette, July 19, 2001.
5"Stem cell therapy repairs a heart," Daily Telegraph (London), Aug. 25, 2001.
6"Stem cells used to repair heart tissue," MSNBC News, accessed on September 8, 2003 at http://www.msnbc.com/news/959999.asp
7 “Stem cell therapy improves heart failure,” Reuters, January 25, 2005.
8“Scientists try to heal heart with stem cells,” Baltimoresun.com, December 13, 2004.
9"High on the future: Already saving lives, stem cell research may soon be in full swing," Seattle Times, Aug. 20, 2001.
10 “Mixed news on bone marrow transplant,” Paraplegia News, June 1, 2003.
11"Different kind of stem cell already saving lives," (Denver) Rocky Mountain News, August 18, 2001.
12 “Texas stem cell recipients revive debate,” Austin American-Statesman, July 15, 2004; “Paraplegic improving after stem-cell implant,” Indianapolis Star, January 16, 2005; “Doctors in Russia prove stem cells can be used in treating spine injuries, RIA Novosti, December 6, 2004.
13 “Stem cell treatment allows paralyzed Brazilian to walk, talk again,” Agence France Presse, November 19, 2004.
14 “Umbilical cord cells allow paralyzed woman to walk, Daily Telegraph (London), November 30, 2004.
15 “Stem cell transplant works in California case,” Washington Post, April 9, 2002.
16"A voice of hope rings out in Senate,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 13, 2003.
17“Stem cell implant effective in treating cerebral infarction,” The Korea Times, December 9, 2004.
18 “Cells used in stroke work,” Ottawa Sun, November 20, 2004.
19"Ultimate stem cell discovered," NewScientist.com, Jan. 23, 2002.
20"Researchers discover the ultimate adult stem cell," Science Daily Magazine, May 4, 2001.
21"Stem cell research matures in Montreal studies," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 19, 2001.
22"No matter who you are, your body won't reject this universal healer," New Scientist, Dec. 15, 2001.