Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Reaches Moral, Medical Dead End
Ethical adult stem cells have a proven track record of success. Why, then, asks researcher David Prentice, is the NIH still spending $250 million a year killing embryos?
Published, peer-reviewed clinical trials have shown stem cells have reversed stroke damage years after the injury, helped spinal-cord-injury victims regain lost movement, helped heart attack patients recover, cured sickle cell anemia and reversed a wide range of diseases, including multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and lupus erythematosus.
Advances with ethically sourced adult stem cells have already helped more than 1 million patients, according to a recently published review paper by David Prentice, a research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute and a former professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine.
He calls adult stem cells the “true gold standard of regenerative medicine,” while nearly two decades of media hype and the infusion of billions of research dollars on stem cells culled from human embryos have produced exactly zero published reports of validated success in a single patient.
“Actually, it’s probably closer to 2 million patients that have been treated with adult stem cells now,” Prentice told the Register. The 1 million figure he cited in his paper is from 2012, and the field of stem-cell research has exploded since then.
The Virginia-based Charlotte Lozier Institute has been trying to raise awareness about the successes of adult stem-cell therapies, against a mainstream media that seems to ignore them while championing more research on embryos. The institute has produced a series of videos featuring patients who have recovered from a wide range of diseases, including some of the most debilitating brain injuries and autoimmune diseases that have become epidemic.
One of the stories they tell is that of Sonia Coontz. She didn’t realize she was having a massive stroke in May 2011 because she was only 31 years old at the time. During the day she suffered the stroke, the Long Island dog trainer noticed that different words came out of her mouth than the ones she wanted to speak. By evening, her husband, Peter, noticed that half her face had fallen slack. Later, she was struggling to move her arm and her leg, but she knew she was in real trouble when she tried to call Peter but couldn’t say his name.
Doctors told Coontz the stroke damage — clearly visible as a large, white mass on her brain scans — was irreversible, and she would be severely disabled for life. For two years, this diagnosis proved accurate; Coontz could speak only 20 words, she couldn’t move her right arm more than a few inches, her shoulder was in constant pain, and she could not walk more than five minutes without needing a wheelchair. She sank into depression.
Two years after her major stroke, when she was considered well beyond any hope of further recovery, Coontz heard about stem-cell trials at Stanford University. She became one of 18 patients enrolled by neurosurgeon Gary Steinberg to undergo a transplant of bone marrow stem cells directly into her brain, next to the area of her stroke damage.
Almost immediately after the surgery, Coontz was able to raise her paralyzed right arm over her head. Her voice became stronger and her language returned. She now runs, climbs stairs and has had a baby.
“He has given me a new life,” she said of Steinberg when she presented him the Smithsonian American Ingenuity award for his work in 2017.
Not all of Steinberg’s patients experienced as miraculous improvement as Coontz did, but several had clinical improvements, and the clinical trial revolutionized the understanding of the brain’s potential for post-stroke recovery and the potential of stem cells to induce that recovery. It also spurred on dozens of other researchers looking to help the more than 800,000 annual American stroke victims, as well as those using stem cells to treat traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis
Stollfus’ immune system had begun attacking her own cells, and she was suffering from arthritis and kidney failure and was barely able to get out of bed. She miscarried her first baby because of complications of the disease. Stollfus underwent chemotherapy to obliterate her own immune system and then had filtered stem cells from her own marrow transplanted in a clinical trial by Dr. Richard Burt at Northwestern University.
Seven years later, she has no sign of lupus, and she has given birth to two healthy baby girls.
Burt’s research has also been researching adult stem-cell transplants in patients with multiple sclerosis; and his study published this year, of 103 patients, found that only three of those who underwent stem-cell therapy progressed further into disease compared to 34 of those getting standard treatment. And most stem-cell patients showed clinical improvement compared to most standard patients who deteriorated. In one of his patients, Allison Carr, the therapy appears to have reversed the paralyzing autoimmune disease in its tracks.
For one disease at least, sickle cell anemia, stem-cell therapy has moved beyond clinical trials. A 2018 review paper refers to the use of adult stem cells for sickle cell disease (which afflicts 100,000 Americans with severe anemia, pain, strokes and organ failure) as the “only curative approach for this disease.”
Money Down the Drain
One of the biggest hurdles to moving adult stem-cell research forward is funding. There are reports that patients in Burt’s trials were paying as much as $100,000 to enroll in the trial. Carr had set up a GoFundMe page.
Prentice thinks that the money still being directed by the National Institutes of Health toward embryo funding could go a long way in moving “gold standard” stem-cell research into the mainstream. Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s recent appointment of a committee to investigate alternatives to fetal tissue and embryonic stem-cell research, these ethically prohibited methods have so far not produced any changes.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Prentice, pointing to the 2018 NIH funding portfolio, which allots $246 million in federal funds to human embryonic research, about the same as it was under the Obama administration.
“That’s about a quarter of a billion dollars for just one year. What could that do if it was redirected to actually treat patients or to get them into clinical trials for actual clinical research? Embryonic stem-cell research is not funding a single clinical trial.”
Instead, he said, most of that research will be used to inject the human cells into animals, and much of it will be trying to overcome the biggest bugbear that embryonic stem cells have, which is their tendency to grow into tumors.
“The job description of the embryonic stem cell at that point in their life is to grow very rapidly and to be able to form basically all of the cells in the human body,” said Prentice. This magical so-called “pluripotency” is also why they grow cancerous.
In fact, Prentice added, researchers test if they are working with true pluripotent stem cells by first injecting them in mice to see if they generate tumors.
This “tumorigenicity” has so far been an insurmountable technical challenge of embryo cells. The use of these cells pose ethical problems since they require the killing of living human embryos — usually “leftovers” thawed from the freezers of in vitro fertilization businesses.
Ironically, it is the same problem that researchers ran into doing fetal-tissue transplants. Once the shining star of medical promise, federally funded transplants of tissue from aborted babies into patients entranced some medical researchers for nearly 15 years, but ended disastrously.
Prentice thinks NIH’s executive director, Francis Collins, a holdover from the Obama administration, is at least part of the reason for the fixation on embryos as well. “I’ve met with him. He has a very utilitarian ethics,” he said.
From a utilitarian perspective, however, embryo research still doesn’t add up.
“Quit wasting money,” said Prentice, “and quit wasting lives: the lives of human embryos and the lives of patients we could be curing.”
Register correspondent Celeste McGovern writes from Nova Scotia, Canada.