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Adult Stem-Cell Therapies Are the Future, Scientist Says

Holy See gathers bioethics experts from around the world. Dec. 4 issue story.


| Posted 11/30/11 at 12:48 PM

2005 Reuters photo

Adult stem cells, and not embryonic stem cells, are what all scientists in this field of research should be working on, says Dr. Peter Hollands.

A renowned clinical scientist and researcher at the University of Westminster, London, Hollands took part in the first Vatican-sponsored conference to analyze adult stem-cell technology, which was held in Vatican City in early November.

Organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture and NeoStem Inc., a developer and manufacturer of stem-cell therapies, the symposium drew experts from around the world.

Hollands spoke more about the advantages of adult stem-cell research in an interview Nov. 10.

How important is adult stem-cell technology in your research?

Adult stem cells are really the stem cells we should all be working on.

We have had a long experience of this research. The first transplant using adult stem cells was over 50 years ago, if you count bone-marrow stem cells, which we have to count. And my background also involves IVF. I was on the team working on the first-ever IVF baby, and when we first saw the human embryo down a microscope, we all knew there were stem cells there, but we equally all knew those stem cells wouldn’t be used clinically because of the obvious legal, ethical, moral and religious objections to that.

So, even though I’ve got that background, I’ve moved on, and my priority is now cord-blood stem cells. These are stem cells you can obtain every time a baby is born — they’re very easy to obtain and have massive potential.

These types of cells have been transplanted over 20,000 times now for blood disorders, and they’re also using them for processes of regenerative medicine. These cells can make different tissues in the body, and we’ve heard at the conference amazing things — people making new bladders and new blood cells, and it’s all based on adult stem cells — so this is really the way we should be moving forward.

Would you explain more about cord blood cells — they are from the umbilical cord?

Yes, when a baby is born, we just put a little needle into the cord, and the blood drains out. That blood contains stem cells, the cord itself contains stem cells, and so does the placenta. So, why are we looking at embryonic? There’s just no need.

And, yet, these facts don’t seem to get out. Do you know, from your scientific perspective, why that might be the case?

It’s very difficult to understand. I’ve been in this business for 20-odd years now, and I’ve been talking about adult stem cells for all of that time. It’s extraordinary how the media seem to pick up on embryonic stem cells because they seem to have more interest or the public relates to them better. It’s really important that everyone understands there are other types out there.

In this conference, we were shown a little video asking the general public about stem cells, and every one of them — to a man — had no idea. Some people thought it was to do with vaccines, disease. So public education is key, and this is something I’ve worked on a lot over the years.

Another fact that doesn’t seem to get across is that embryonic stem-cell research has offered so few advances.

Absolutely, yes. If you look at this conference, the advances are enormous. If you look at embryonic stem cells, there is, I believe, one clinical trial under way right now — and that’s it. So, it’s self-explanatory, really.

Why do scientists still believe there is anything to learn from embryonic stem-cell research?

I don’t know if there’s anything to learn from embryonic stem cells, but it’s the objections to their use [that’s the problem].

We could grow potatoes on the moon; we could send up water, soil and seeds. We could set it up, grow potatoes, and it would work. But why do that when you’ve got something which is so much easier, and you’re able to grow them in a field?

That’s the difference between adult and embryonic — the technology is already there. Embryonic stem cells are actually quite difficult to make. There are great worries about tumor formation on transplantation.

Adult stem cells have never shown tumor formation on transplantation. So we’ve got all these objections and, to me, as a stem-cell scientist, adult stem cells are the future.

How do you think the Church can best get this message across?

I think the Church can be very proactive and actively support adult stem-cell research. I think its literature could reflect that more. I think the press associated with the Church should really push the idea of adult stem cells so that we understand them.

From my point of view as a scientist, I want to use them because I know they work and are easy to use. The Church has also got religious and ethical support for this because of the use of human embryos [in the other research, which the Church says is morally wrong], so I think the Church has a major role to play in the future of adult stem-cell technology.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.