Have you noticed that the stem-cell controversy rarely makes the news these days? There’s a reason: The greatest advances in stem-cell research over the last decade have not involved cells taken from destroyed embryos.
That doesn’t fit the media template of embryonic stem cells being the “gold standard” for regenerative medicine, and indeed, the “only hope” for people struggling against diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. Hence, advances that would have resulted in screaming headlines if accomplished with embryonic stem cells, barely caused a ripple and in many cases weren’t reported at all.
But there is plenty of good news on the ethical stem cell front. First, induced pluripotent stem-cell research (IPSC) is advancing exponentially. IPSCs are made by “reprogramming” normal cells — such as skin — into “embryonic-like” pluripotent stem cells that can be transformed into any kind of tissue in the body. This means that we may be able to obtain every purported benefit touted for embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) without destroying embryos.
IPSCs can’t yet be used in direct treatments because, like embryonic stem cells, they can cause tumors. But IPSCs are already being used in valuable experiments that we were once told would require human cloning to allow. For example, IPSCs have been made from Parkinson’s patients’ cells and changed into neurons to study the disease. IPSCs are also being used to test drugs and have been turned into mini faulty hearts to study rhythm disorders. This technique has advanced so far that in animal studies, one type of tissue was turned directly into another — without first going through the stem cell stage.
Meanwhile, advances on early human trials using adult stem cells are offering true hope for an eventual revolution in the treatment of some of humankind’s most intractable diseases. Here’s a sampling:
- Heart disease: While there have been some mixed results to date in treating heart disease with adult stem cells, several human trials have shown great promise. For example, a March 2011 article in Circulation Research: Journal of the American Heart Association found that injecting bone marrow stem cells reduced the size of enlarged hearts by 15-20% and reduced scar tissue after heart attack by 18.3%.
- Blindness caused by eye injury: Last year, a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients blinded by caustic chemicals had sight restored with the use of their own eye stem cells.
- Multiple Sclerosis: It’s been known for some time that adult stem cells can stop the progression of MS. The treatment has carried some risk because it requires chemotherapy to destroy the patient’s immune system, after which bone marrow stem cells are used to reboot the body’s defenses. More recently, a small safety trial published in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that injecting a pint of patients’ own bone marrow taken from the pelvis is not only safe, but appears to have efficacious benefit for patients — and without the use of potentially dangerous chemotherapy.
There are literally thousands of adult stem cell human trials ongoing at the present time around the world — as opposed to just three very small ESCR safety studies. Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, tracks these studies from around the world. He told me, “Published evidence demonstrating that adult stem cells can repair diverse tissues continues to mount. Even though there is little media interest, adult stem cells are effectively helping thousands of patients for dozens of diseases right now, with much more coming in the pipeline.” It is increasingly likely that the future of regenerative medicine can be powerfully efficacious without crossing important ethical lines.
And that’s the point to always remember whenever discussing the stem cell controversies: The debate has never been an argument about “science,” but rather, over proper ethics. But morality can seem terribly abstract in the face of hyped promises of cures!
But now that it has become clear that IPSCs, adult stem-cell research, and other ethical regenerative techniques have actually travelled farther than ESCR, even that weak argument is collapsing. Indeed, President George W. Bush had it right — and his critics had it wrong — when he expressed faith in the imagination and ingenuity of science to find ways forward in the stem cell sector that both promoted good science and maintained a proper regard for the sanctity of human life.
Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Find out more by visiting his blog, Secondhand Smoke.