What You’re Not Told about Stem Cells

By Michael Fumento

National Post, July 28, 2001
Copyright 2001 National Post

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On July 24, 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 cells came from the man’s own marrow. No embryos were harmed in the making of this miracle. This is probably the first time you’ve heard about this experiment — and it will likely be the last.

Consider this recent Newsweek article, which puts what it wants you to think is the entire argument over the U.S. ban on public funding for stem cell research on the cover. "The Stem Cell Wars," declare the boldest words. "Embryo Research vs. Pro-Life Politics: There’s Hope for Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, Parkinson’s and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?"

Get it? It’s pro-life fanatics versus science; pro-life fanatics versus the sick.

But actually it’s science, not abortion opponents, making the case for using non-embryonic cells.

Overwhelmingly, the incredible medical breakthroughs coming in the past two years involving stem cell research have involved non-embryonic stem cells.

A recent report in New Scientist described the successful use of stem cells from adult human hair follicles to create skin grafts.

Two studies in Nature Medicine reported that non-embryonic stem cells injected into rodents can transform themselves naturally into neurons and insert themselves into the brain, giving hope to people with Parkinson’s and other disorders. A third study found that injecting a chemical into damaged areas of rats’ brains stimulated stem cells to grow and differentiate into a massive number of normal, fully developed nerves. The cells were able to repair damage and restore mobility to the rodents. At least four rodent studies (some published and some not) and one pig study have shown that non-embryonic stem cells can be injected into animals with damaged hearts and repair heart tissue.

As reported in Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, rats with degraded retinas were injected with non-embryonic stem cells that travelled to the site of damage, which then showed signs of making connections with the optic nerve and hence improve or even restore vision.

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers injected non-embryonic stem cells into the spinal fluid of paralyzed mice and rats, half of which partially or fully recovered.

Cells from liposuctioned fat (North America’s most plentiful resource) have been transformed into bone, muscle, cartilage and mature fat cells, according to the journal Tissue Engineering.

"Next up: Everything we’ve decided you need to know about stem cells."

Time and again, scientists involved in non-embryonic stem cell work, including even some who say they support lifting the U.S. funding ban, have commented that one of the important results of their and other’s findings is that they would bypass the emotion-charged embryonic tissue debate. Among them:
  • Dr. Donald Orlic of the National Genome Research Institute told NBC News in late March that "we are currently finding that these adult stem cells can function as well, perhaps even better than, embryonic stem cells."
  • Eric Olson, chairman of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says that almost "every other week there’s another interesting finding of adult cells turning into neurons or blood cells or heart muscle cells. Apparently our traditional views need to be re-evaluated."
  • Ira Black of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, referring to his own stem cell research says it "essentially circumvents all the ethical concerns with the use of fetal tissues."
  • Markus C. Grompe, a professor of molecular medical genetics at Oregon Health Sciences University said of one study: "This would suggest that maybe you don’t need any type of fetal stem cell at all — that our adult bodies continue to have stem cells that can do this stuff."

One of the richest sources of cells that are not adult, but more importantly non-embryonic, are umbilical cords and placentas from live births. Each year, more than four million umbilical cords are simply discarded. Connected end-to-end, they would stretch farther than from Montreal to Winnipeg.

Stem cells from newborns are not only available in unlimited amounts, there’s also reason to think they may be far more versatile than the other non-embryonic cells used in the aforementioned studies.

But it’s not just that embryonic cells are unneeded; pragmatism counsels that they should be shunned.

Much of the current fear over therapeutic human biotechnology comes from angst over embryonic stem cell research, expressed across the spectrum of the abortion debate. Rightly or wrongly, use of embryonic cells invokes visions of Dr. Josef Mengele and a spooky slippery slope toward playing around with human life.

Maintaining the ban on embryonic stem cell research while we continue to watch the fantastic results pour in from non-embryonic stem cell work will leap right over this moral chasm. This action will not just promote stem cell research, but prove invaluable to all future therapeutic genetic research and the vast promise it holds.

It would also send a message to the powers-that-be that in no case not involving national security is it right to withhold vital information from the public.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on biotechnology.