Embryonic Verses Adult Stem Cells?

Bradley Mattes   |   November 13, 2000

Embryonic Versus Adult Stem Cells? It’s Really No Contest.

By Bradley Mattes, Executive Director

There is considerable controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells research (ESCR) because a living human embryo is killed in the process of harvesting the cells.  In contrast, adult stem cells can be harvested without a loss of life, and they are readily available from bone marrow, skin, fat, umbilical cord blood and other sources.

In the fall of 2001, President Bush decided to allow federal funding of ESCR in a very limited way.  Only those stem cell lines harvested from living embryos prior to his decision are eligible for tax-dollar funding.

President Bush then created the Presidential Council on Bioethics to oversee the ESCR debate and chose Dr. Leon Kass to chair the council.  Dr. Kass has:

  • Questioned the uses of in vitro fertilization
  • Opposed the substitution of the Hippocratic Oath – with its injunction against abortion.
  • Decried the growing acceptability of euthanasia
  • Strenuously argued against even basic research into human cloning.
  • His core thinking, “We should bequeath to our children a world in which human dignity can flourish no less than human health.”

To date, current research on embryonic stem cells has resulted in no promising results.  Ironically, a leading pro-ESCR advocate is the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, but ESCR research has failed in fighting this disease.

Past supporters of this controversial research are now speaking out about the false hype surrounding the results.  The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that doubters are coming out of the woodwork.  Paul Billings, who studied stem cells’ effects and co-founded a stem cell bank, said that hopes for major new medical treatments based on embryonic stem cells are “very remote”.  “The problems are so complex that we’re not likely to be able to tackle them with the stem cell gambit in the foreseeable future.”

Researchers in China met with a disastrous result.  Fetal tissue injected into a patient’s brain produced temporary improvement, but within two years the patient developed a brain tumor and died.  An autopsy revealed that the fetal cells had taken root, but had then metamorphed into other types of human tissue – hair, skin and bone.  These grew into the tumor, which killed the patient.

A devastating result occurred at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.*

In some of the patients, the implanted embryonic cells apparently grew too well, churning out so much of a chemical that controls movement that they writhed and jerked uncontrollably.  Dr. Paul E. Greene called the uncontrollable movements developed by some patients as “absolutely devastating.”  He said, “They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, their writs flex and distend.  It’s a real nightmare.  And we can’t selectively turn it off.  No more fetal transplants.  We are absolutely and adamantly convinced that this should be considered for research only.”

In stark contrast to the failures of embryonic stem cell research, the future looks very promising for treatment with adult stem cells.

The following are examples of research breakthroughs with adult stem cells.  Please note that this list is only a sampling.

  • Researchers at Harvard Medical School say adult stem cells may eliminate the need for embryonic ones.  The researchers experienced a permanent reversal of Type 1 diabetes in mice by killing the cells responsible for the diabetes.  The animals’ adult stem cells took over and regenerated missing cells needed to produce insulin and eliminate the disease.  The results hold promise for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus and more than 50 other ailments.
  • At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a man with a rare, potentially fatal skin disorder that was so severe that he could no longer eat, is now symptom-free after receiving a transplant of his own adult stem cells.
  • Doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago extracted the adult stem cells from the blood of two Crohn’s patients and successfully used them to rebuild their faulty immune systems.
  • Dr. Edward Holland of the Northern Kentucky Eye Laser Center in the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area, is using adult stem cell transplants as part of a treatment to dramatically improve the eyesight of his patients.
  • New research in the UK on rats indicates that transplants of adult stem cells can help stroke victims regain movement, senses and understanding.  They also show that the adult cells were more effective than cells from aborted babies.
  • The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York came to similar conclusions.
  • A study by the Institute for Stem Cell Research in Milan, Italy showed that certain cells from the brains of adult rats can be used to generate muscular tissue.
  • Researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa have found that adult stem cells from the umbilical cord blood may be able to help repair damaged brain tissue after a stroke.
  • Scientists at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ have found that bone marrow cells may be converted into replacement nerve cells, able to treat brain and nerve injuries.  Dr. Ira Black and his team were able to convert 80% of the bone marrow cells into nerve cells.

Forbes Magazine provided additional confirmation that adult stem cell research is far more successful that embryonic stem cell experimentation.  In their September 3, 2001 issue, page 36, they quoted an article printed in the Wall Street Journal Europe by Richard Miniter.

“Of the 15 US biotech companies solely devoted to developing cures using stem cells, only two focus on embryos.  Embryo stem cell research is at the drawing-board stage – not for lack of funds but for lack of promising research to finance.  Venture capitalists have no agenda beyond making money; if they see embryo projects that are likely to bear fruit over the next five to seven years – the usual VC time horizon – they will fund them.  That the market is speaking so loudly against embryo stem cell research probably explains why embryo researchers are so eager to reverse the ban on government funding.”

Diane Irving, Ph.D., a former professor of biology at Georgetown University and former biochemist with the National Cancer Institute, said, “I have argued that adult stem cells are better because they are closer to the stage of differentiation than embryonic or fetal cells – therefore they do not have as long a distance to travel differentiation-wise as the younger cells.  Therefore there is far less of a chance for genetic errors to be accumulated in the implanted cells and less side effects for the patient to deal with.”

Cloning holds even less promise for success than research with embryonic stem cells does.  It took 277 attempts to get Dolly.  Scientists estimate an overall failure rate for cloning farm animals is 95% or greater.  One shudders to think how many living human embryos will be sacrificed in attempts to clone humans.

We should listen to the advice of a country that has, in the past, crossed the moral line of human experimentation.  Johannes Rau, President of Germany, vehemently argued against cloning.  “Eugenics, euthanasia and selection are labels that are linked to bad memories in Germany.  Where human dignity if affected, economic arguments do not count.”

* Results published March 8, 2001. Reported in New York Times, March 8, 2001 by Gina Kolata:

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