NEW YORK — Nearly 10 years after former President George W. Bush allowed federal funding for certain lines of embryonic stem cells, adult stem-cell therapies continue to outperform those derived from the destruction of human embryos.
The most tantalizing news in recent months in stem-cell research was that of an American in Berlin who continues to be free of his AIDS disease three years after treatment.
As well, major league pitcher Bartolo Colon has joined the Yankee starting lineup after adult stem-cell treatment repaired the arm injury that forced his retirement.
But the promising results have received spotty coverage in the mainstream media that seems to some critics calculated to downplay or dismiss them and has prompted questions about why the U.S. lags behind Europe in adult stem-cell research while encouraging embryonic stem-cell studies, which have so far proven largely fruitless.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church and other institutions seek to promote adult stem-cell research, both because of its success and because it involves no destruction of human embryos.
(The Church supports adult stem-cell research, but condemns research or therapies using human embryonic stem cells. In mid-June, the Vatican announced a three-year joint venture with NeoStem, a biotech firm dedicated to adult stem-cell research.)
The HIV/AIDS cure was accomplished in 2007 by a German medical team for an American patient known for three years as “the Berlin patient.”
But last month Timothy Ray Brown went public with an interview on American television to confirm that three years after his injection with genetically modified adult stem cells from a compatible German donor the disease has not returned.
Interestingly, the original story about the therapy, in The Wall Street Journal four years ago, never used the term “adult stem cell” or even “stem cell,” describing the treatment as “gene therapy” involving tissue extracted from bone marrow.
The treatment has only limited use because it depends on not only finding a donor whose genetic makeup is compatible with the HIV/AIDS patient, but finding one with a genetic defect conferring immunity to HIV. Only 1% of Caucasians lack the particular protein in their bone marrow that the virus must use to gain ingress to the bone marrow tissue supplying the human immune system.
Lack of the protein brings with it vulnerability to certain diseases but immunity to HIV. When The Huffington Post reported in December that Brown was still disease free three years after the treatment, it referred throughout its story to “stem cells” but never to “adult stem cells.” Researchers in America and Germany are attempting to make the cure more generally applicable.
As for major league pitcher Bartolo Colon’s return from a two-season retirement after adult stem cells healed his injured wrist and shoulder, The New York Times managed, in its May 12 story, to make it all seem somehow sleazy by likening stem cells to human growth hormone, which is banned in baseball.
Noted pro-life Catholic blogger Allen Troupe, “While the concerns about the use of HGH in sports is valid, the real agenda by The New York Times is totally different. They are attempting to undermine the success of a treatment using adult stem cells.”
Like The Huffington Post, the Times could not quite bring itself to use the word “adult” in its reportage. This left some readers confused as to whether embryonic stem cells were involved, judging from responses posted to the Times’ website.
The newspaper also quoted an American doctor warning against unproven treatments. Troupe offers two self-interested motives for the doctor in question to want to dismiss adult stem cells (a connection with the Arthritis Foundation, which, he reports, is solidly in favor of embryonic stem-cell research, and a preference for his own treatment for injured joints).
Theresa Deisher is president of AVM Biotechnology, a Seattle company dedicated to research into and the manufacture of therapies that are compatible with Catholic ethical teaching.
She said the significance of the Berlin cure for HIV/AIDS is that “we may now see pressure from the powerful AIDS patients and gay-rights groups on federal research agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to fund adult stem-cell research.”
Deisher said the American scientific community has had a long-standing preference for embryonic stem-cell research over adult stem-cell research that has put the U.S. “10 years behind Europe” in developing treatments like the HIV/AIDS cure.
Even the Catholic-led opposition to embryonic stem-cell use on ethical grounds has not led the research community and funders to develop more public funding for adult stem-cell work, but to “an obsession” with developing artificial embryonic stem cells, said Deisher, duplicating both their advantages and drawbacks.
The two apparent appeals of embryonic stem cells, said Deisher, are that they are pluripotent — that is, they can grow into any kind of tissue — and “they grow like crazy.”
But Deisher suspects a darker motive — the use of the research to move into human cloning.
Unfortunately, embryonic stem cells produce tumors in all trial treatments with animals. However, adult stem cells are taken from the patient’s own body or, in the case of leukemia or the noteworthy HIV/AIDS case, a compatible donor, and do not produce tumors or violate the recipient’s immune system.
Deisher’s own company is now testing a drug on animals that increases the effectiveness of adult stem-cell treatments by focusing the injected cells on the injured parts of the body. Deisher is looking for investors.
The John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute, based in Iowa City, Iowa, is, like AVM Biotechnology, committed to ethical research. (See profile on page B1.) Kim Lehman, a board member of the institute and president of Iowa Right to Life, said the institute is looking for financing and plans to go directly to churches for it. The institute is also looking for donations of adult stem cells because its research focus is the world’s 7,000-plus “orphan” diseases too rare to excite the pharmaceutical industry. It hopes, in collaboration with Cellular Engineering Technologies, also based in Iowa, to build a bank of adult stem cells, especially those with rare diseases. They will then test existing drugs on the diseased cells.
Already, the John Paul II Institute has collected adult stem cells infected with Niemann-Pick disease, a children’s version of Alzheimer’s, and sent them to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is testing them against drugs in their vast library to see if any is a cure.
Lehman said the Colon treatment speaks to the virtually untapped area of medicine in which adult stem cells can be applied — that of regenerative medicine: “It’s the future of medicine.”
Don Margolis, founder of a Texas adult stem-cell research company and fierce advocate of adult stem cells through a website (RepairStemCells.org) and its twice-monthly newsletter, has a frankly conspiratorial explanation for what he sees as the preference in the U.S., Canada and Britain for embryonic stem-cell research.
“Pharma,” as he calls the pharmaceutical industry, “controls every major newspaper and every research facility with its profits. And the cures promised by adult stem cells threaten those profits.”
Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, precisely because they are “as useless as crap,” are not only encouraged, “they are mandatory,” as far as the pharmaceutical industry is concerned. Margolis’ conspiracy theory explains why there aren’t more stories in the mainstream media about adult stem-cell treatments, but not why the pharmaceutical industry failed to bribe the European research community as he claims it has the North American one.
Among the success stories reported in recent issues of Margolis’ newsletter:
Two Florida women, Erida Kazmaj and Carrie Salback, reported great improvements in their cystic fibrosis after injection with adult stem cells from the bone marrow of close relatives.
Kaden Strek, an 8-year-old boy from the Detroit area, recently returned from China, where his family purchased $50,000 in adult stem-cell treatments for his cerebral palsy. A Detroit News story said it was too soon to tell for Kaden, but added that 5-year-old Brooklyn Hall had confounded her prognosis for the same disease — that she would never walk again — and three years after her Chinese treatment was walking unaided for at least 30 feet with canes.
The News also reported on a survey of Chinese patients with cerebral palsy indicating 77% said their condition had improved. And, like many U.S. news reports, there were cautions from American experts about resorting to treatments offered in countries lacking the high standards of proof required in the U.S. The only proven adult stem-cell treatments, said Larry Goldstein, director of the University of California at San Diego’s Stem Cell Program, are for bone marrow transplants and some bone, skin and corneal diseases. “After that, everything is experimental,” said Goldstein.
Susan Cossabone of New Jersey regrew the bones of one ankle destroyed in a 2007 car crash using adult stem cells. Her own doctors said her foot had to be amputated, but she searched the Internet and found Baltimore Dr. Mark Myerson of Mercy Medical Center’s Institute for Foot and Ankle Reconstruction, where her ankle bones’ regrowth was stimulated by the injection of adult stem cells harvested from cadavers.
Elsewhere on Margolis’ website is the news of an American-Spanish collaboration on a technique to first destroy tissue in donated hearts and then to regrow the organ with adult stem cells from the prospective heart-transplant recipient, thus avoiding tissue rejection. Dr. Doris Taylor of the University of Minnesota has used the technique successfully on mice.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.