Life Notes

NEWCASTLE, Wales — Not a single patient has yet benefited from human embryonic stem cell research, and there is virtual scientific consensus that any medical therapies from cells derived from killed human embryos are, at best, years off. Yet patients in clinical trials the world over are experiencing astonishing results using ethically derived stem cells.

Take 3-year-old Tom Stretch of north Wales, for example. Last month, the Welsh boy was cured of a lethal blood condition using stem cells extracted from the placenta of his newly born sister, Hannah. Doctors, led by Andrew Cant at Newcastle General Hospital, infused Tom's vein with blood stem cells from his baby sister's placenta, which was stored after she was born last November.

The stem cells treated the boy's white blood defect, chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), which had left him unable to fight germs and suffering from pneumonia and an inflamed bowel.

Sixteen weeks after the procedure, BBC Radio reported, the cells had cured Tom and the toddler was on his way home.

Stem cells from ethical sources such as umbilical cord blood and adult tissue are used frequently to treat leukemia and cancer patients, and therapies derived from alternative ethical stem cell sources are producing unexpected cures and offering the best hope for repairing damaged spinal cords, hearts, brains and more.

Since Aug. 9 when President Bush announced his decision to confine federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to existing cell lines (from embryos that had been killed before that date), scientists worldwide have reported more than a half dozen breakthroughs in stem cell research using cells derived from morally acceptable sources.

Other recent stem cell breakthroughs include:

E Doctors in Singapore announced in August they have successfully treated a rare hereditary blood disorder, thessalemia, that often causes severe anemia and is usually fatal in untreated children, with a transplant of umbilical cord blood rich in stem cells from a non-related donor.

E Researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center reported in the August Archives of Dermatology they have improved the condition of a man suffering from a rare skin disorder that is characterized by waxy, thick, stiff skin called scleromyxedema. The patient was unable to close his eyelids completely or open his mouth to eat before doctors infused him with stem cells collected from his own bone marrow. Aftter three months his skin lost the “cobblestone appearance” it had developed and he was able to open and close his mouth and eyes.

E In August, physicians at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital reported initial success treating two patients with Crohn's disease — a painful inflammatory bowel disease — with stem cells extracted from their own blood.

E Doctors in Dusseldorf, Germany, used stem cells from a man's own bone marrow to treat him after he suffered a heart attack that damaged one quarter of his heart muscle. Ten weeks after an injection of cells directly into the man's coronary arteries, heart tissue damage was reduced by nearly a third. As well, the injected cells had migrated to the damaged areas of the patient's heart and begun beating as heart cells.

E Canadian researchers at McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute reported in the August issue of Nature Cell Biology they have harvested stem cells from adult human skin and mice and grown them into neurons as well as a host of other cell types including smooth muscle and fat. It was the first time that neurons have been isolated from skin.

“They are beautiful neurons,” molecular biologist and co-author of the study Freda Miller told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “You kind of look at them and say, this can't be true. But then you go back and do it 10 times, and you realize it is true.” While it is still unknown if these neurons can transmit electrical and chemical signals as they do in the brain — and perhaps be used to treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease and spinal cord and brain injuries — there is a vast, cheap source of the cells. “It's from skin,” said Miller. “There's so much, and it's right there, and this is a non-controversial source.”

Even more promising, after three weeks, the Canadian researchers were able to coax the cells from human scalp to grow into fat cells, smooth muscle cells, and glial cells — the sort that might be used to treat patients with currently incurable multiple sclerosis.

False Dogmas

The Canadian research adds to the growing evidence that old scientific dogmas about non-embryonic stem cells were wrong: Cells from alternative — and ethical — sources also have the ability to divide indefinitely and the versatility to grow into the various tissues of the body.

David Prentice, professor of genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine, notes that besides these recent breakthroughs, adult stem cells are showing remarkable promise for the treatment of stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes. They have also been used successfully in human patients to relieve other diseases including lupus, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

As well, cells taken without risk from the umbilical cord of newborns are now used to bolster the ravaged systems of leukemia and cancer patients. Since the first successful umbilical cord blood transplant in 1988 — from a newborn baby girl to her brother who suffered from Fanconi's anemia — umbilical cord blood have been used in children because they are an especially rich source of stem cells, and they are less likely to provoke an immune rejection response in transplant recipients.

And such cells are proving even more therapeutic than was first thought. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June reported that umbilical cord blood from non-matched and unrelated donors was a useful option in treating adults also.

Yet much of the political debate following the president's Aug. 9 decision has continued to focus on expanding federal funding of research to allow more killing of human embryos.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a professed Catholic and pro-abortion champion who is head of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired Sept. 5 hearings on stem cell research. In his opening remarks, Kennedy implied that more embryonic tissue was necessary.

“President Bush has opened the door to government funding for this important area of health research,” he said. “The question before Congress is whether the door is opened wide enough — whether the stem cell lines identified by the administration are adequate and available for the research that is needed now to save lives.”

Kennedy said that the 60 stem cell lines the president approved for funding may not actually be available, they may not meet safety requirements for transplants, and they may deteriorate and become unusable for research “in a year or two.”

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a pro-abortion Repubican who has referred to embryonic stem cells as a “veritable fountain of youth,” offered a similar assessment. “Many of the lines cited are not really viable or robust or usable,” he said. “The real question is whether the door is open sufficiently.”

Geneticist David Prentice is skeptical about these kind of complaints. “The day before [President Bush's] decision, we heard that embryonic stem cells were nothing short of miraculous, that they could form any tissue and grow forever,” said Prentice. “The day after, we were told that they wouldn't grow, that they had all these problems.”

Specter is pressing for a vote on his own bill, the Stem Cell Research Act of 2001. It would extend federal funding to research on so-called discarded human embryos curently stored in IVF (in vitro fertilization) clinics.

But another pending bill, the Responsible Stem Cell Research Act of 2001, introduced in the House in June by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., would authorize government spending of $30 million to support adult stem-cell research and would also set up a stem-cell bank for collection of umbilical cord blood and placentas.

All legislative debate on stem cells has fallen to the wayside since the Sept. 11 attacks, but the continuing stream of scientific data continues to show the far greater promise of adult and umbilical stem cells, Prentice said.

Said the scientist, “Frankly, I don't think embryonic stem cells will ever make good on any of the promises of treatments that are being held out for them.”

Celeste McGovern writes from Portland, Oregon.