An Ethical Alternative
Family North Carolina MagazineMarch/April
In January of this year, the medical community received the news that a new source for stem cells had been discoveredone that did not require the destruction of human embryos and that may have the capability to treat numerous diseases and conditions. In the center of this buzz was the Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM) at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. directed by, Dr. Anthony Atala. He and his associates at IRM have already experienced a number of succeses.”
In an article published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Atala and his team of researchers described how they extracted stem cells from the amniotic fluid that surrounds developing embryos in pregnant women. Researchers also discovered similar stem cells in the placenta and other membranes that are expelled after birth. The new stem cells, called “amniotic fluid-derived” stem (AFS) cells, have already been used to create “muscle, bone, fat, blood vessel, nerve and liver cells in the laboratory,” according to an IRM press release. Amniotic fluid-derived cells can be grown in large quantities and do not produce tumors, a side effect commonly seen in other types of stem cells. A stem cell bank hosting 100,000 specimens could ostensibly provide 99 percent of the American population with transplantation options, Atala said.
The stem cell breakthrough is particularly noteworthy since the research avoids the ethical implications of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), a process that necessitates the destruction of a human embryo in order to harvest its stem cells. Many Americans believe embryonic stem cell research is equivalent to abortion because the stem cell extraction process ends a human life. On the other hand, the pro-life community has embraced adult stem cell research (ASCR), which uses human organs such as umbilical cord blood and bone marrow to extract stem cells that can be engineered to become new tissue for treatment purposes.
Dr. David Prentice, Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., called IRM’s research on amniotic stem cells “very promising” and said that researchers have thoroughly verified their results. “These non-embryonic stem cells show all the positives most scientists claim they want, yet without the ethical baggage and scientific problems of embryonic stem cells,” Prentice said. “I’d anticipate that other researchers will turn their efforts to using these cells for therapeutic treatments, as well as the possibility of banking amniotic fluid and placental stem cells.”
IRM is also involved in other avenues of regenerative medicinal research. Researchers there are currently concentrating on developing treatments for “diabetes, pancreases, livers, kidneys, and other kinds of neurological organs.” Dr. Atala has also spearheaded efforts to create replacement organs for patients suffering from poor bladder function resulting from congenital birth defects. The replacement bladders, created from the patients’ own cells in order to avoid rejection, are “functional” and “durable,” Atala said.
To many in the pro-life community, including Prentice, alternative methods like amniotic fluid-derived cells provide an ethical option for researchers. Such non-embryonic stem cell methods are responsible for a variety of treatments currently being employed, while no embryonic stem cell research has resulted in approved treatments or human trials. “The amniotic fluid stem cells show all the advantages desired in a stem cellthe flexibility to form various tissues of the body, easy collection, large-scale growth but don’t have the disadvantages of tumor formation seen with embryonic stem cells,” Prentice said. “They are also ethically acceptable, because they do not require destruction of the donor, which is the case with embryonic stem cells.”
Prentice added that amniotic fluid-derived cells “are definitely more controllable than embryonic stem cells,” especially in the area of tumors. “[AMS cells] are easily collected and grow well in the laboratory, so that large numbers of cells can be accumulated for experiments or for clinical use,” he said. “The researchers have also already shown that they can produce different cell types that have potential to treat disease and injury.”
One of the key downsides of human embryo-derived stem cells is their unstable nature. According to Wesley Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, problems with embryonic stem cell research include tissue rejection and tumor formation in animal experiments. “These and other significant scientific obstacles facing embryonic-stem-cell researchers mean that treatments from this source of stem cells are unlikely to become a part of medicine’s armamentarium at the clinical level for more than a decadeif ever,” Smith said.
Moreover, embryonic stem cell research experienced at least one major ethical scandal beyond the question of the sanctity of human life. In late 2005, evidence arose that South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk falsified research involving allegedly cloned embryonic stem cell lines created at Seoul National University. Hwang and his research associates drew national attention in May 2005 when they published an article in the journal Science claiming to have cloned patient-specific embryonic stem cells. If true, the breakthrough would have overcome a major obstacle embryomic stem cell research currently facesthe immune system’s rejection of stem cells not derived directly from the patient in question.
Meanwhile, the scientific community, research publications, and the popular media continue to focus on embryonic stem cell research to the point that treatments derived from adult stem cells get “the short end of the stick,” according to author Michael Fumento.
To Prentice, the national push for research on human embryos is attributable to either political motivation or a “misunderstanding” that alternative stem cell sources are already providing treatments for patients. “If more people realized the fact that non-embryonic stem cells have the greatest promise for treating disease soon, we’d be focusing our resources on the successful research,” Prentice said.
David Bass is a research assistant with the North Carolina Family Policy Council. For a footnoted copy of this article go to www.ncfamily.org.
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.