George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.

Point and Counterpoint: Abortion and Alternatives - Article 16, for Sunday, August 20, 2006

Stem Cells – The Focus of Much Research and “Hype”

Quick refresher – Stem cells are important because they can differentiate into all the various cell types that make up the body and are responsible for its repair and maintenance.  If one can control the differentiation of these cells, it is possible one can cure many diseases.

Stem cell research has been ongoing for decades and there are numerous maladies which have been successfully treated with adult stem cells (ASC), which are the undifferentiated stem cells resident in organs and responsible for repair of that organ by becoming new constitutive cells of that organ.  At one time these ASC were considered specific for the organ of residence, but numerous studies have shown that they can become other cell types. causing them to be characterized as pluripotent.  This is in distinction to the embryonic stem cells (ESC) found in a young embryo of 4-5 days gestational age that are responsible for generation of all the cell types of an adult and are, thus, characterized as totipotent.  ASC can be obtained from donors harmlessly, but removing ESC always kills the human embryo.  Although it is reasonable to expect that they would act like ASC, there are no therapies which use ESC.

Last year what could prove to be a new type of stem cell was reported in the scientific literature, describing a cord-blood-derived embryonic-like stem cell (CBE) isolated from human umbilical cord blood.  These cells were capable of differentiating into cell types representing all three classes of tissue comprising the body and were said to have many properties in common with ASC and with the primitive ESC of the 4-5 day old human embryo.  They have definite advantages over both ESC and ASC in that they are readily available from cord blood which is obtainable harmlessly at birth and which is readily stored in cord blood banks throughout the world.  This greatly increases the probability of excellent tissue matching, lowering the chance of tissue rejection.  The investigators are using a microgravity bioreactor developed for NASA to facilitate larger scale production of the cells in a manner which eliminates the need for layers of nutrient animal cells, possible sources of contamination.  The lead investigator, Colin McGuckin, at U of Newcastle, England projects treating liver disease within 5 years, while collaborators at U of Texas are concentrating on treatment of type 1 diabetes.

The present administration is fighting use of federal funds for ESC research because of the concomitant killing of human embryos.  However, why various state legislatures have or are attempting to appropriate funds for ESC research is uncertain.  If such research is fruitful, what will be gained for the state – some celebrity, some initial extra jobs?  What is certain is that millions of human embryos will be killed and the technology will be quickly disseminated throughout the world.

The big challenge to science is to learn how to control stem cell differentiation.  This can be done with various ASC and other stem cells such as CBE which may come to light.  More funds should be expended here and not where they will cause destruction of human life.   Please share this with your State and Federal legislators.

Peter Moore, PhD    George A. Sprecace, M.D., J.D.

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