The Stem Cell Clashes


There are so many question marks, and I believe further study is needed, both of adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.

—Dr. Piero Anversa, professor of medicine, New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York, a leader of a team that used adult stem cells to create heart-muscle cells, Wall Street Journal, August 13

There is no way the pro-lifers are going to win this battle. They agree, as I do, with professor Dianne Irving, who wrote in “When do human beings begin?” (International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 1999) that “This single-cell human zygote [produced by the union of sperm and egg] is biologically an individual, a living organism—an individual member of the human species.”

But the bountiful promises of embryonic stem cell studies are so wondrous that despite George W. Bush’s restrictions limiting research by federally funded U.S. scientists to 60 already existing lines of embryonic stem cells—and the House’s outlawing of human cloning—the new world of smiting disabling and deadly diseases cannot be held back.

Stem cells—which have the potential to grow into any organ or tissue in the body—will one day, we are told, repair heart, brain, and nerve damage, as well as other presently dread conditions to come.

Whatever Bush and future presidents and Congresses decide, private laboratories—openly or in secret—will pursue human perfectibility and their own profits, as will scientists in other countries freed of restrictions. As the August 13 Wall Street Journal reported, Britain, in about a year, will have set up “the world’s first embryo stem cell bank.”

“Initially,” the article said, “the bank would serve as a repository for stem cells [for use by researchers and companies] around the world.” Eventually, “the bank could generate fresh cell lines from new embryos,” who would be killed in the process. Note that I said “who.”

But amid all the American media’s expansiveness on our coming deliverance from some of our worst fears, it’s worth noting that with regard to stem cell regenerations of our bodies, it will be some years before we know which of these visions will be fulfilled. Furthermore, because so much media attention is on embryonic stem cell research, much less attention has been paid to what adult stem cells have already done to change the lives of human beings, not only of mice in labs.

The intense current focus on stem cells is due to the fact that the most visible and contested issue is about cultivating many fresh lines of cells derived from embryos—with the accompanying destruction, some of us believe, of human life. Even the pro-life individuals are split on this one, with some supporting the Bush plan. But many scientists are convinced that the 60 already existing cell lines—with the originating embryos already destroyed—are not nearly enough for essential life-serving research ahead.

A sign of the pressure to get media and popular support for embryonic stem cell research was the July 6 Washington Post report that a finding raising troubling questions about embryonic stem cell research had been deleted at the last minute from an article in the prestigious journal Science. The censored material, said The Washington Post, showed that “embryonic stem cells are surprisingly genetically unstable, at least in mice. If the same is true for human embryonic stem cells, researchers said, then scientists may face unexpected challenges as they try to turn the controversial cells into treatments for various degenerative conditions.”

But according to The Washington Post, part of this finding was omitted to avoid giving ammunition to opponents of embryonic stem cell research.

As for the much undersung adult stem cells, the headline in the August 13 Wall Street Journal heralded: “New Findings Point to Huge Potential of Adult Stem Cells.” In the story, Laura Johannes reported:

“The discovery, published today in the September issue of Nature Cell Biology, is part of a growing body of work suggesting that stem cells found in adults have an incredible ability to morph into many types of tissues. If this is true, these cells could potentially be used instead of embryonic cells to treat many diseases, offering a way around the acrimonious debate over whether a cluster of cells in a laboratory petri dish represents a human life.”

Adding more specific information, David Prentice, professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine, points out:

“[Adult stem cells] are actually being used now to treat human patients [by generating] new corneas for restoring sight to the blind. In the animal models and actually the adults themselves, I believe they have shown more success than have any of the embryonic cells—reversing diabetes in mice [and] treating Parkinson’s.”

Professor Prentice goes on: “The potential biomedical application of embryonic stem cell research faces significant risks such as the tendency toward tumor formation, as well as instability in gene expression. And embryonic stem cells face the very real possibility of immune rejection, while use of a patient’s own adult stem cells is free from this problem. Hence, adult stem cells have many advantages as compared with embryonic stem cells for practical therapeutic application.” (Emphasis added.)

Adult stem cells can potentially be taken from the blood, fat, bone marrow, brain, pancreas, muscle, and retinas, with maybe more sources to come.

As to the charge that adult stem cells are in relatively limited supply, Prentice reports that “the number of available adult stem cells can be expanded greatly in culture. In March of 2000, researchers identified the conditions necessary to allow for a large-scale expansion (a billionfold in a few weeks) of adult stem cells in culture.” (His scientific source: D. Colter, at al. 97 Proc. National Academy of Sciences, 3213, March 28, 2000.)

So why isn’t there a campaign—crossing all political, religious, and other ideological lines—to get more federal funding for adult stem cell research too?