Adult Stem Cells Treating Thousands of Patients Now

By David A. Prentice, Ph.D.

Stem cell research continues to move ahead. Not embryonic stem cell research, however, which relies on the destruction of young human life. 

After over 30 years of embryonic stem cell research, first with mouse and then human embryonic stem cells, not a single patient has been helped.  And while over the past year, three experimental trials have been approved in the U.S., even many embryonic stem cell scientists believe the practical dangers of embryonic stem cells (tumors, incorrect tissue growth, immune problems) make such trials preliminary; simply using patients for experiments.  Embryonic stem cells fail on both ethical and practical aspects, and have contributed only hype to the debate and false hope to patients.

Adult stem cells are both successful and ethical.  They can be isolated and used without harming the stem cell donor.  They can be taken from a host of tissues—bone marrow, muscle, fat, umbilical cord blood—and already have proven success at saving lives and improving health on a daily basis.  Over 50,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells.  The diseases and conditions successfully treated by adult stem cells, as shown by published scientific evidence, continue to expand, with published success for numerous cancers, spinal cord injury, heart damage, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, and many others.

Here are just a few examples of adult stem cell advances over the past year.

* Several studies now document that adult stem cells can stimulate repair of damaged heart tissue, including damage from heart attack as well as chronic heart failure. 

For example, scientists at the University of Miami reported that they had reversed heart damage in a small group of patients with the patients’ own bone marrow adult stem cells, reducing scar tissue and improving function to injured heart areas, up to eleven years after initial heart damage.  And doctors in Germany published evidence from a large study showing that patients treated with adult stem cells for chronic heart failure showed a significant improvement in heart function and a significant decrease in long-term mortality, with no side effects.  In another example, doctors in Brazil and Florida found that adult stem cells injected directly into the heart could relieve angina.

* Italian doctors reported that they could successfully treat corneal blindness using the patient’s own adult stem cells.  They treated 112 patients who had been blinded by chemical burns.  Over 77% of patients recovered normal vision.  Patients with superficial damage were able to see within one to two months, while more extensive injuries took several months longer to recover.  One of the successful transplants was a man who had been blind for 50 years.  The doctors grafted adult stem cells from a small section of his left eye to both eyes.  His vision is now close to normal.

* Multiple sclerosis (MS) treatment with adult stem cells also showed multiple positive results over the past year.  A team of scientists from Thessaloniki, Greece, showed that chemotherapy followed by adult stem cell transplant can stop progression of aggressive MS.  The team

observed a group of 35 patients who received transplants of their own bone marrow adult stem cells after being treated with chemotherapy to wipe out the rogue immune cells that were attacking their nervous system and causing their MS.  An average of 11 years after their transplants, 25% of the patients in Greece have not seen their disease progress.  And a U.K. team led by Dr. Neil Scolding showed that a simple intravenous infusion of the patient’s adult stem cells, without using chemotherapy, could work to improve MS patient symptoms. 

The groundbreaking report of the first six patients found  that the simple treatment stabilized the patients’ conditions and improved their nervous systems.  The whole procedure, from extracting the bone  marrow adult stem cells to re-infusing them into the bloodstream, was accomplished in a few hours at the hospital, and the patients were then followed for one year to observe the positive benefits.

* Scientists used donor adult stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood to successfully treat children with a fatal genetic skin

disease called epidermolysis bullosa (EB), that causes skin to blister and scrape off with the slightest friction and chronic pain; the slightest touch or hug hurts them.  All 10 children treated so far have responded positively, easing their conditions.  According to the doctors who treated the children, “Bone marrow [adult stem cell] transplantation is one of the riskiest procedures in medicine, yet it is also one of the most successful.  Patients who otherwise would have died from their disease can often now be cured.  It’s a serious treatment for a serious disease.”

* Scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston published preliminary results of a Phase I clinical trial showing the safety of bone marrow adult stem cells in treating traumatic brain injury in children.  A total of ten children from 5-14 years old were treated within 48 hours of their injury with their own adult stem cells; the cells were collected from their bone marrow, processed and returned to them intravenously.  Six months after their adult stem cell treatment, all of the children showed significant improvement.  The team is also testing use of umbilical cord blood, another type of adult stem cell, for these treatments.

While many adult stem cell treatments are still experimental, the results continue to flow for thousands of patients a year, and many new applications are being developed. This makes it all the more important that we direct our health care resources toward the proven, ethical, and successful solution—adult stem cells.

For a visual sample, see the three patient videos at

Dr. Prentice is Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research  Council.

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