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19 November 2010

Stem Cells of the Adult Kind Steal the Headlines


Nov 18, 2010 — Stories about stem cell research need to be divided into two sections: those about adult stem cells (AS), which have no ethical ramifications, and stories about embryonic stem cells (ES), which raise many issues about the sanctity of human life. As usual, most of the actual clinical progress is being made with adult stem cells (cf. 10/04/2010, 08/06/2010; search on "stem cells" for many more entries).

Adult Stem Cells

  1. Culture triple crown: Scientists at UC San Diego have provided a perfect environment for the growth and culture of adult stem cells, according to Science Daily. “Bioengineers from the University of California, San Diego have achieved the ‘Triple Crown’ of stem cell culture -- they created an artificial environment for stem cells that simultaneously provides the chemical, mechanical and electrical cues necessary for stem cell growth and differentiation,” the article began. “Building better microenvironments for nurturing stem cells is critical for realizing the promises of stem-cell-based regenerative medicine, including cartilage for joint repair, cardiac cells for damaged hearts, and healthy skeletal myoblasts for muscular dystrophy patients. The advance could also lead to better model systems for fundamental stem cell research. The article said nothing about embryonic stem cells.
  2. Bandage for a bleeding heart: In another Science Daily report, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have shown that an injection of stem cells into animal hearts, with the appropriate expression molecules, leads to repair of damaged heart tissue. They used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) in their experiments.
  3. Fat for the heart: Stem cells derived from fat may be safe in humans, said another story in Science Daily.
  4. Arthritis hope: Stem cells from umbilical cords may be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, announced PhysOrg.
  5. Stem cells on the brain: Scientists at Duke University are trying to understand how stem cells in the brain decide to renew themselves or differentiate into neurons, according to PhysOrg.
  6. Building stem cell muscle: PhysOrg announced hope for keeping muscles strong as we age: “A University of Colorado at Boulder-led study shows that specific types of stem cells transplanted into the leg muscles of mice prevented the loss of muscle function and mass that normally occurs with aging, a finding with potential uses in treating humans with chronic, degenerative muscle diseases.
  7. Saving limbs: Some people get cardiovascular disease so serious, the only option is amputation of a limb. Science Daily just announced a treatment that might some day save 100,000 limbs a year by injecting the patient’s own stem cells into the damaged area, to “stimulate new blood vessel formation in ischemic limbs, which can improve perfusion and salvage function.” The lead researcher at Northwestern Medicine was clearly excited about the hope this provides. “As study of stem cells continues, I believe we’re on the verge of a rebirth in the practice of medicine,” said Douglas Losordo, M.D.. “Using a patient’s own cells to regenerate their body has enormous potential to treat conditions that have previously been considered irreversible.
Embryonic Stem Cells
  1. Art or science? The only recent stem cell story in the popular science press was this one from Science Daily: “Embryonic Stem Cell Culturing Grows from Art to Science.” Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found a more reliable way to culture ES cells. Is anything good being done with them? Not according to the article: “At present, human embryonic stem cells are cultured mostly for use in research settings.
  2. Regulators without Rx: An abstract in Nature (11 Nov 2010) discussed research in Singapore trying to identify all the transcription factors that regulate embryonic stem cells. There was no mention of any application to help human beings.
One other recent news story did not make it clear whether ES or AS cells were being discussed. Live Science and PhysOrg both announced the first stem cell trial by injection of stem cells into a woman’s brain at the University of Glasgow. No results were announced. Joni Eareckson Tada was interviewed on the Frank Pastore radio show Weds. evening (see her website and listen to her story in the documentary, The Case for Faith). This long-suffering quadriplegic woman who has championed the needs of the disabled would, it seems, have plenty of reasons from a secular perspective to support ES stem cell research – if she thought for a minute they were ethical and provided hope. Instead, she pled earnestly against ES stem cell research as a matter of conscience, because cutting up human embryos, which according to the Bible and genetics are human persons, violates the sanctity of human life. She applauded the many wonderful advances happening in adult stem cell research, arguing that they presented no ethical issues.
Joni, who according to World Magazine has most recently been battling severe pain with breast cancer, on top of decades of paralysis, said all that needs to be said about this issue, with a credibility most of us lack. For more information, see the policy statement by Steve Bundy about stem cell research on her Joni & Friends ministry website, and her book Life in the Balance that discusses Biblical answers for the issues of our day, including stem cell research. Joni also has a DVD entitled Lives in the Balance: the Stem Cell Debate that specifically addresses the issue.

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