Embryonic stem cell research

When the media talk about stem cell research they are often referring to embryonic rather than adult stem cell research.

  • There is no evidence that embryonic stem cells are effective in treating disease.
  • Embryonic stem cells have not helped a single human being.
  • Adult stem cells have already helped hundreds of thousands of patients.
  • The only way to obtain embryonic stem cells is to kill the living human embryo.
  • At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the human female, a new life has begun.
Stem cells are cells that have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body. Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells for as long as the person is still alive. 1

Stem cell research is seen to be one of the most promising areas of medical research. The controversy surrounding stem cell research is over the use of stem cells harvested from aborted embryos. The media has played a significant role in this debate.

In almost every instance where references are made to cures that have been effected with stem cells it is, at the very least, implied that the cures were made using embryonic stem cells (ESCs).

An article in the Detroit Free Press claimed that there are three myths in the stem cell controversy.

One is that all such work involves only embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). A second is that ESCR is the only stem cell research that can aid the treatment of certain types of diseases, and that opposing this type of research will deny unique benefits to those in need. The third myth is that the Roman Catholic Church opposes all stem cell research.

Extracting stem cells from embryos to establish ESC lines kills embryos. This is what the Catholic Church opposes, not adult stem cell research. ASCR does not involve the destruction of embryos or any disproportionate risk to the individual from whom the cells are taken.
Adult stem cells have been used to treat 56 different diseases.


Although there are many people have been cured, or whose conditions have improved as a result of using adult stem cells (ASCs have been used to treat 56 different diseases), there have been no cures from using ESCs.

Embryonic stem cells cannot be used directly. They are likely to be rejected, and have been shown to be prone to produce tumours. To acquire stem cells which won't be rejected, an "embryonic clone" from which to take stem cells, has to be made of that person. Unlike embryonic cells, neither adult nor umbilical cord blood stem cells have been found to cause tumors.

ASCs may be able to generate into most tissue types
Those in favour of ESCR have often claimed that only ESCs can be transformed into every type of cell. This has been the justification for the demands for funding. However, Dr. Douglas Losordo and his team of researchers at Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, have identified adult stem cells that may have the capacity to repair and regenerate all tissue types in the body.

The findings were published in the February 1, 2005 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Newly discovered adult stem cells may have the capacity to generate into most tissue types.

"This discovery represents a major breakthrough in stem cell therapy," said Dr. Losordo. "Previously identified adult stem cells can only generate into certain types of body tissue.  Based on our findings we believe these newly discovered stem cells may have the capacity to generate into most tissue types in the human body.  This is a very unique property that until this time has only been found in embryonic stem cells."

There is no evidence that ESC's are able to fulfil the expectations created by the media and related interests.

Myths and the media
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research have created a false impression that these cells have a proven therapeutic use. The suggestion that ESCs are the most effective for treating disease has not been borne out in reality. After many years research it is still only being claimed that ESCs have the potential to cure diseases. No one is promising a guarantee.
Celebrities such as Michael J. Fox are constantly in the public eye, pleading for funding to be given to ESCR.

No humans have been successfully treated by embryonic stem cells.

Celebrity "Parkinson's disease victims" such as Michael J. Fox are constantly in the public eye pleading for funding to be given to ESCR. This great emotional appeal ignores the significant advances that have already been made with ASCs.

The media continue to imply that embryos hold the key to the future. But as critics of ESCR point out, it looks as if our own body cells offer the quickest and best hope for regenerative medicine.

The British medical journal, The Lancet, has denounced media claims that cures for diseases from embryo stem cells are around the corner. Calling it "sensationalist" and "hype." A June 4th 2005 editorial titled "Stem cell research: hope and hype," referring to ESCs, warned that "no safe and effective stem cell therapy will be widely available for at least a decade, and possibly longer."

The Lancet further mentioned that dozens of diseases are already giving way in experiments to treatment with adult stem cells. "Several forms of cancer are already routinely treated using the patient's own stem cells derived from his blood or bone marrow."

The Lancet quoted Neil Scolding, a British neurology researcher at the University of Bristol saying, "(An) increasing appreciation of the hazards of embryonic stem cells has rightly prevented the emergence or immediate prospect of any clinical therapies based on such cells. The natural propensity of embryonic stem cells to form [tumors], their exhibition of chromosomal abnormalities, and abnormalities in cloned mammals all present difficulties."

Adult stem cell research
Paralysed people with serious spinal injuries have regained feeling in their bodies using adult-tissue therapies.

Paralysis
Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, Portugal, has helped restore bladder and muscle control to people with paralysis using stem cells from their own nasal tissue. This means that paralysed people with serious spinal injuries have regained feeling in their bodies using adult-tissue therapies, and may one-day be able to walk again. More than 20 patients have received this therapy with most receiving measurable benefit.

One of Dr Lima's patients, American Susan R. Fajt testified at a Senate Subcommittee hearing:

I have recovered some functional improvement through Dr. Lima's procedure, such as the ability to hold my bladder and at times even void on my own. Sensation has been restored, though it is not completely normal. When concentrating, I am now able to contract my thighs slightly . . . this was impossible before my surgery in Portugal. But most important on my way to recover is that I can now walk with the aid of braces. I am now preparing to shed the shell of this wheelchair . . . to more and more use my braces and walker for mobility. This is something my doctors in America told me would never be possible with my level of injury and to accept my fate. [emphasis added]

A 19-year old patient who had been paralysed from the neck down in an auto accident, testified at the same hearing that, after treatment, she had regained feeling, strength and balance. She can now stand and remain standing using a walker and is improving.
A woman paralysed for 20 years has regainned the ability to walk after being treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells.


South Korean researchers have apparently helped a woman who has been paralysed for 20 years regain the ability to walk after being treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells. Indeed, the woman has progressed so well that she took a few steps unassisted in front of a bank of television cameras.

Israeli doctors inserted a paraplegic patient's own white blood cells into her severed spinal cord, after which she regained bladder control and the ability to wiggle her toes and move her legs. (Globe and Mail, June 15, 2001)


Heart disease
Human heart patients have already benefited from treatment with their own bone marrow or blood stem cells.

Multiple sclerosis
In an early human trial, a patient with multiple sclerosis so advanced that he experienced bouts of blindness appears to have been put into almost total remission using his own stem cells.
Of 26 patients with multiple scelerosis, treated with adult stem cells, 20 stabilized and six improved.

Human multiple-sclerosis patients have also benefited from adult stem cell regenerative medicine. A study conducted by the Washington Medical Center in Seattle involved 26 rapidly deteriorating MS patients. 

First, physicians stimulated stem cells from the patients' bone marrow to enter the bloodstream. They then harvested the stem cells and gave the patients strong chemotherapy to destroy their immune systems. (MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the patient's body attacks the protective sheaths that surround bundles of nerves.) Finally, the researchers reintroduced the stem cells into the patients, hoping they would rebuild healthy immune systems and ameliorate the MS symptoms.

It worked. Of the 26 patients, 20 stabilized and six improved. Three patients experienced severe infections and one died.

In Canada, younger MS patients whose diseases were not as far advanced as those in the Washington study have shown even greater benefit from the same procedure. Six months after the first patient was treated, she was found to have no evidence of the disease on MRI scans. Three other patients have also received successful adult-stem-cell grafts with no current evidence of active disease.

While it is too early to tell whether the Canadian patients have achieved permanent remission or a cure, but there can be no question that the research is significant.

Parkinson's disease
Parkinson's patient Dennis Turner had been diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 49. The disease grew progressively, leading to tremors and rigidity in the patient's right arm. Traditional drug therapy did not help.
One year after being treated with his own ASCs, one patient's overall Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale had improved by 83 percent.


Stem cells were harvested from the patient's brain using a routine brain biopsy procedure. They were cultured and expanded to several million cells. About 20 percent of these matured into dopamine-secreting neurons. In March 1999, the cells were injected into the patient's brain.

Three months after the procedure, the man's motor skills had improved by 37 percent and there was an increase in dopamine production of 55.6 percent. One year after the procedure, the patient's overall Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale had improved by 83 percent - this at a time when he was not taking any other Parkinson's medication!

In another human trial, five Parkinson's patients, treated with a natural body chemical known as glial cell-line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), improved so significantly that three regained their senses of taste and smell.

Diabetes
Mice with advanced-stage juvenile diabetes have been cured with adult cell therapies. At Harvard University, mice with Type I diabetes were completely cured of their disease. The experiment was so successful that human trials are now planned. (Harvard University Gazette, July 19, 2001)
15 people with serious Type I (juvenile) diabetes became "insulin free" after adult pancreatic islet cell transplants; 9 still need no insulin injections.

Diabetic mice treated with adult stem cells achieved full insulin production and all lived. This is in contrast to an experiment in which embryonic stem cells injected into diabetic mice achieved a 3 percent insulin production rate and all the mice died. (STATS, May 2001 published by the Statistical Assessment Service)

Adult Pancreatic Islet Cells: 15 people with serious Type I (juvenile) diabetes became "insulin free" after adult pancreatic islet cell transplants; 9 still need no insulin injections. (American Diabetes Assoc. Report, 24 June 2001)
Two children born without immune systems have left their sterile environment and lead normal lives after ASC treatment.

Immune system restored
Immune systems destroyed by cancer were restored in children using stem cells from umbilical-cord blood. (Time April 16, 2001)

Two children born without immune systems ("bubble boy" syndrome) have left their sterile environment and lead normal lives after adult bone marrow stem cell treatment.(Science, The Washington Post, 28 April 2000)

Corneal repair
Several legally blind people can now see more clearly after their corneas were reconstructed with adult corneal stem cells. (New England Journal of Medicine, 13 July 2000)

Current use of Adult Stem Cells to help human patients:
  • Brain Cancer
  • Retinoblastoma
  • Ovarian Cancer
  • Merkel Cell Cancer
  • Testicular Cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Acute Lymphobolastic Leukemia
  • Acute Myelogenous Leukemia
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia
  • Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia
  • Angioimmunoblastic Lymphadenopathy with Dysproteinemia
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Myelodysplasia
  • Breast Cancer
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Renal Cell Carcinoma
  • Various Solid Tumors
  • Soft Tissue Sarcoma
  • Scleromyxedema
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Crohn's Disease
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Juvenile Arthritis
  • Systemic Lupus
  • Polychondritis
  • Systemic Vasculitis
  • Sjogren's Syndrome
  • Behcet's Disease
  • Myasthenia
  • Red Cell Aplasia
  • Autoimmune Cytopenia
  • X-Linked Lymphoproliferative Syndrome
  • X-Linked Hyperimmunoglobuline-M Syndrome
  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome-X1
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Sideroblastic Anemia
  • Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia
  • Aplastic Anemia
  • Amegakaryocytic Thrombocytopenia
  • Chronic Epstein-Barr Infection
  • Fanconi's Anemia
  • Diamond Blackfan Anemia
  • Thalassemia
  • Stroke
  • Osteogenesis Imperfecta
  • Sandhoff Disease
  • Corneal Regeneration
  • Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis
  • Primary Amyloidosis
  • Limb Gangrene
  • Surface Wound Healing
  • Heart Damage
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Spinal Cord Injury
Two quotes from a workshop sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine in Washington DC, Stem Cells and the Future of Regenerative Medicine (22 June 2001):

"There is no evidence of therapeutic benefit from embryonic stem cells." - Marcus Grompe, MD, PhD, Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, Oregon Health Sciences University (an expert in cell transplantation to repair damaged livers)

"There is no experience with embryonic stem cells in humans, and very little in mice… all claims of therapeutic benefit from embryonic stem cells are conjectural." - Bert Vogelstein, Professor of Oncology and Pathology at Johns Hopkins University and Chairman of the Institute of Medicine's committee studying stem cell research
Researchers have reported that grant applications have been turned down because they are studying ASCs.

The future of research
Researchers have reported that grant applications have been turned down because they are studying ASCs. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health have has funded only 30 projects involving stem cells from umbilical cords.  In contrast, it has funded 634 projects involving embryonic stem cells.

In California, voters have voted to provide $3 billion in embryonic SCR funding over the next 10 years and take $6 billion in taxpayer money to pay off the bonds issued for its support. Other states, worried that scientists and researchers may move out of state to take part in ESCR, are pushing for similar funding.

Critics of ESCR are worried that the trend of ignoring scientifically proven ASCR, in favour of the potential benefits of ESCR at some unknown time in the future, is likely to cost lives that may otherwise have been saved by the use of adult stem cell therapy. 

Human embryos are human beings
The testimony of modern science is clear on this point:

"At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the female and the union results in a fertilized ovum (zygote), a new life has begun." 2

Many internationally-known geneticists and biologists have testified that human life begins at fertilisation. To determine if a human embryo is a human being, all one has to do is count the number of chromosomes in any cell of that human embryo under a microscope, and observe the functions and activities which are present immediately after fertilisation. Read "When Life Begins"

Referrences:
1. National Institutes of Health, Stem Cell Basics
2. Douglas Considine (ed), Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia (5th ed, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), p. 943. See Keith Moore, Essentials of Human Embryology (Toronto: Decker, 1988), p.2; Ida Dox et al, The Harper Collins Illustrated Medical Dictionary (New York: Harper, 1993), p. 146; T W Sadler, Langman's Medical Embryology (7th ed, Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995), p. 3; Bruce Carlson, Patten's Foundations of Embryology (6th ed, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), p. 3.