DENVER — The recent explosion of success in using adult stem cells to treat and cure diseases marks a shift in the medical field by making it unnecessary to use controversial embryonic stem cells, said Dr. Robin Smith.
“These cells are impacting many peoples’ lives who are treated in a clinical trial, and as they become standard in care ... it will become part of modern medicine,” the president of the Stem for Life Foundation told Catholic News Agency March 6.
“There’s a paradigm shift in medicine now, using cell therapy to treat diseases, and it’s just a very exciting time in medicine.”
Smith, along with Msgr. Tomasz Trafny and Max Gomez, is co-author of The Healing Cell, a new book that presents the many ways in which adult stem-cell therapies are being used in regenerative medicine.
The Healing Cell is the fruit of collaboration between the Stem for Life Foundation and the Pontifical Council for Culture. In November 2011, the two organizations held a conference at the Vatican promoting adult stem-cell research.
Adult stem cells are taken from a person’s existing stem cells or from the placenta or umbilical cord at birth. Smith said they are found throughout the body in all our tissues, including bone marrow, fat and teeth. They can be extracted with a needle or a patient can be given a medication that causes stem cells in bone marrow to migrate into the blood stream.
Stem cells are incredibly versatile and can grow just about any other kind of cell. Stem-cell treatments cause stem cells to get to an area of the body damaged by trauma or aging, where they can repair or regrow damaged tissue, restoring function.
“Today there are 4,300 adult stem-cell trials, and there are over 70 diseases where adult stem-cell therapies are part of clinical care,” Smith said.
“These clinical trials are looking at taking the cells from the body and doing something with them. So, for example, to take a bladder cell, put it on a matrix outside the body and create a bladder, and put that bladder back in.”
Smith said it is “very exciting to see a new bladder being created from a single cell.”
While stem cells from human embryos have failed to create any significant cures or treatments, adult stem cells are successfully being used to fight chronic disease and an array of disorders.
In 2012, Sir John Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Peace Prize for demonstrating that adult skin cells can be “reprogrammed” to become “embryonic-like” cells, giving them huge therapeutic potential.
And because adult stem cells can be taken from the patient who will be treated, there are no concerns about rejection of the cells by the body, Smith added.
The success of adult stem cells has been so great that there is no reason to continue embryonic stem-cell research, which necessarily involves the destruction of a human person, she argued, noting that there are 4,300 adult stem-cell trials currently under way, but only 26 embryonic stem-cell trials.
The most mature advances in adult stem-cell therapies are in cardiovascular disease, Smith said. Injecting stem cells into the hearts of people who have had heart attacks has stimulated the hearts to repair themselves.
There is also “very exciting data in wound repair, bone healing, advances for vision and certainly organ repair,” she said.
Adult stem-cell therapies are also being used to treat diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, autoimmune disorders and other health issues, all of which are discussed in The Healing Cell.
The Healing Cell will be published on April 2 and is available for pre-order at StemforLife.org. The first edition of the book was presented to former Pope Benedict XVI in June, and it includes his address to the participants at the 2011 adult stem-cell conference.
The book also includes a foreword by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who was president of the Pontifical Council for Culture under Benedict XVI.
Msgr. Trafny, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science and Faith department, told CNA that his office aims to show people that “there is a possibility to embrace well-performed research ... and to do so in peace with your conscience.”
“So there’s no opposition, no need to make a choice, between science and faith,” he said, explaining that the Church embraces adult stem-cell therapy because it does not destroy a human life and therefore represents no violation of ethical norms or religious belief.
The pontifical council wants to “show that there is hope, especially for those who are affected by degenerative diseases and who desperately need help,” said Msgr. Trafny.
He added that his office explores the advances in science “that will substantially change the future of society, and regenerative medicine is one of them.”
“Being part of the discussion and research is part of the Church’s mission: to help those who suffer, to assist them, and to find the best solution for their illness.”