By Dave Andrusko
A report in today’s Guardian newspaper is just the latest evidence that when researchers are compelled to find stem cells sources other than human embryos, they benefit twice over. First, since human embryonic stem cells have no proven track record to date, resources are not wasted. Second, the need to look elsewhere has found much more promising—and ethically acceptable—alternatives.
“Stem cell research thrives, despite patent ruling on destruction of embryo,” by Adrian Tombling, takes as its starting point last year’s ruling by Court of Justice for the European Union that scientists can’t patent stem cells if they are obtained by destroying human embryos.
Dr. Peter Saunders explained the backdrop.
“The EU judges were asked by the German Federal Court of Justice to provide a ruling in a case regarding a German scientist, Oliver Bruestle, whose patent on a method to create nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells was ruled invalid. The court said ‘a process which involves removal of a stem cell from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, entailing the destruction of that embryo, cannot be patented.’ The ruling mentions ‘respect for human dignity.’”
Europe’s highest human rights court said the use of human embryos “for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes which are applied to the human embryo and are useful to it is patentable. But their use for purposes of scientific research is not patentable.”
Tombling said the decision “sent a shockwave through the biotechnology industry.” We heard all about a “Dark Age of stem cell research”—that the “emerging regenerative medicine industry that the Government has placed at the heart of its plans for economic recovery could be wrecked,” and so on and so forth.
So what has happened? According to Tombling, “one year on, human stem cell research is still thriving as it innovates to side-step the ethical issues surrounding the destruction of embryos.”
He talks briefly about human embryonic stem cells, radically overestimating the results of two very preliminary studies on two women with serious eye difficulties
As do most stories, Tombling talked about induced pluripotent stem cells–iPS cells. iPS cells are made by adding a few genes to a normal cell such as a skin cell, causing the normal cell to look and act like an embryonic stem cell, yet without any use of embryos, eggs, or cloning technology. Even though iPS cells use an adult cell (not a stem cell) as their starting material, they are definitely not “adult stem cells,” but rather an ethically-derived version of embryonic stem cells.
And to his credit Tombling at least mention adult stem cells, the single best alternative source. “They remain the only type of stem cell used successfully to treat human patients,” said Dr. David Prentice, an expert on stem cell research. Adult stem cells have many advantages. “They can be isolated from numerous tissues, including bone marrow, muscle, fat, and umbilical cord blood, just to name a few,” Prentice told NRL News Today.
“Over 50,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells,” he said. “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.”
Even thought Tombling shoehorns in some very dubious kudos for embryonic stem cells, his analysis demonstrates that scientists are perfectly capable not only of finding ethically acceptable alternatives but alternatives that are much more promising.