Stem Cell Victory Brings Ethics Challenge

Stem cell research, nuclear transfer of embryonic stem cells from petri dish used in cloning for medical research

In the branch of science that is “stem cell research” there are two sorts: embryonic stem cells and all the rest.  Until the last couple of years, all success in actually using such cells has been on the “other” side using cells from skin, adults, umbilical cords, placenta and the like.  The reality was for decades, embryonic stem cells were unpredictable.  There was no controlling them.   Almost every study was stopped due to the cells developing into something they were not supposed to be.

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Until now.

In the last two years, a company known as Asterias Biotherapeutics, Inc., a subsidiary of Biotime, has developed a product derived from embryonic stem cells known as AST-OPC1 where the unpredictability of embryonic stem cells is now controlled. In clinical trials, millions of these stem cells are injected into patients with recent spinal cord injuries.  The results are turning heads from coast to coast. From Rush University:

Early research results from the trial were announced at the 55th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS), which is being held in Vienna, Austria, on September 14-16, 2016.

“Our preliminary results show that we may in fact be getting some regeneration. Some of those who have lost use of their hands are starting to get function back. That’s the first time in history that’s ever been done,” says Fessler. “Just as a journey of a thousand miles is done one step at a time, repairing spinal cord injuries is being done one step at a time. And, now, we can say that we’ve taken that first step.”

And in Southern California:

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After a mere 3 weeks of therapy, Kris started showing signs of improvement, and within 2 months he could answer the phone, write his name and operate a wheelchair.  He had regained significant improvement in his motor functions; which are the transmissions of messages from the brain to muscle groups to create movement (3).

Kris recovered two spinal chord levels which made a huge difference in his movement abilities. It was the difference between minimal movement or none at all and being able to function on his own. Kris regained the incredibly important aspect of independence.

While scientific achievement is cause for celebration – especially when dealing with catastrophic injury and illness – these results have been achieved with the cells of dead babies.  Regardless of the success of the clinical trials, that thought should be one to temper any celebration.  No less than the man who actually managed to isolate Embryonic Stem Cells put that thought into action when he came up with the stem cell conversion technique from skin cells less than ten years ago.

If the stem cell wars are indeed nearly over, no one will savor the peace more than James A. Thomson.

Dr. Thomson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 plucked stem cells from human embryos for the first time, destroying the embryos in the process and touching off a divisive national debate.

And on Tuesday, his laboratory was one of two that reported a new way to turn ordinary human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without ever using a human embryo.

The fact is, Dr. Thomson said in an interview, he had ethical concerns about embryonic research from the outset, even though he knew that such research offered insights into human development and the potential for powerful new treatments for disease.

“If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have stemnot thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”



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