Hosannas for ESCs Building Again, But Adult Stem Cells Remain the Gold Standard

By Dave Andrusko

As we’ve documented in exquisite detail, the Washington Post is gearing up another offensive on behalf of “therapies” using stem cells harvested from human embryos–ESCs. (See, for example, here)

Newsweek is part of the Washington Post conglomerate and, wouldn’t you know it, it just produced a piece that is as pie-in-the-sky as you possibly get (see “Saving Sight, Testing Faith: Stem cells from embryos may finally cure patients—reviving a bitter debate”).

In terms of publicity the fall-back has been induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. I’ve written about extensively because the research to date indicates it has all of the potential advantages ESCs are alleged to have. iPS cells do share a negative—the potential to proliferate wildly—but it is a drawback researchers are confident they can overcome.

But the irony is that both ESCs and iPS cells are essentially models. There already is an alternative at work all over the world—“adult stem cells” (see Part Three).

Not only are they successful and ethical (no human embryo is sacrificed), 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. 

By the way, Sharon Begley’s Newsweek story trumpeting ESCs is just mindless PR, essentially on behalf of one researcher. By sharp contrast there is a New York Times story that appeared over the weekend that showed a potential second weakness of iPS cells.

Rather than use that as a mindless hosanna for ESCs or cloning, Andrew Pollack pointed out that there might be a remedy to the new glitch.

As you remember iPS cells begin with an adult skin cell that when doused with chemicals reverts to an embryonic cell-like stage. The latest news (from the journal Nature last Friday) is that even though these tissues would be derived from a patient’s own body, they might be rejected by the patient’s immune system.

Pollack’s story points out that this reaction was in mice, not humans, for starters. And “Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a founding member of the Whitehead Institute, said that in practice, iPS cells themselves would not be implanted into people,” Pollack writes. “Rather, the stem cells would first be turned into specific types of cells, like brain cells or heart cells.”

Again, the gold standard to this stage is neither ESCs or iPS cells but adult stem cells. As Dr. David Prentice explains in Part Three,

“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.”

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