By David Prentice
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. — Psalm 139:16
We are now just a little more than two weeks away from Christmas when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and reflected on the wonder of God taking on the form of a human being, especially starting as a newborn baby born under humble circumstances.
But that human being didn’t start his earthly form at birth, but rather nine months earlier, as an embryo.
King David expresses it as “unformed substance” in verse 16 of Psalm 139, an apt description of our early embryonic morphology. The biological truth is that the existence of every new human organism did indeed begin at the formation of that first new organismal cell, the zygote, the combination of the egg and sperm. The lack of recognizable human structures, the unformed substance of our earliest existence, does not invalidate the humanity of our earliest stages of life.
Strange then that early human embryos, our most vulnerable stage of life and “the least of these” our fellow humans, have been targeted especially in recent years, as a source of stem cells that we were told would cure all known maladies. Yet the facts have been, and continue to be, obscured by proponents of embryonic stem cell research who are so eager to harvest stem cells from tiny humans they are blind to the truth that there are plentiful alternative sources.
Embryonic stem cells have been known to exist for decades and were studied for many years before being grown successfully in the lab. One initial point people must realize is that the isolation of human embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of a young human embryo, and often many embryos are destroyed before one successful cell culture is achieved.
And what of the “potential” for cures? After over 30 years, not very many mice have benefited from embryonic stem cell therapy, and to date there is no proven success with human embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the least likely type of stem cell to help any patients. Their very nature—a tendency to incessant growth—means that they are much more likely to form a tumor than to form healthy tissue, and so embryonic stem cells risk the life and health of those who are injected with them.
Even some embryonic stem cell advocates are beginning to admit failure. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, charged with spending $3 billion of state taxpayer dollars primarily for embryonic stem cell and human cloning research, has lately been funding mostly grants for non-embryonic stem cell research, hoping that they will have something to show for their expenditures which so far have yielded nothing from embryonic stem cells. Given the ethical taint of embryonic stem cell research, creating and destroying human life specifically for destruction, the trend away from embryonic stem cells is encouraging both for ethics as well as for practical needs of patients.
The new, ethical method of producing iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) is also encouraging. The 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 use of embryos, eggs, or cloning technology. There is often confusion here. Even though iPS cells use an adult cell (not a stem cell) as the starting material, they are definitely not “adult stem cells,” but rather an ethically derived version of embryonic stem cells.
They can be made from any person, starting with almost any normal cell, and have already been used in the laboratory as models to study cell growth, differentiation, and the development and potential treatment of disease. For example, Israeli scientists have made iPS cells from heart patients, then turned the iPS cells into beating heart cells in the lab, to study heart disease.
Adult stem cells remain the gold standard among stem cells when it comes to helping patients. The first transplants, using whole bone marrow, were done decades ago, but it took many years before these transplants were accepted as therapeutic successes. It wasn’t until the 1990s that doctors began isolating human adult stem cells, rather than using bone marrow. Today, adult stem cell transplants remain the only successful use of stem cells for patients, as documented by hundreds of published, peer-reviewed scientific articles. Adult stem cells can be isolated from many different tissues, including bone marrow, blood, muscle, fat, and umbilical cord blood, and isolating the adult stem cells from tissues of a patient or a healthy donor does not require harming or destroying the adult stem cell donor. That gives adult stem cells a distinct ethical advantage over embryonic stem cells. Over 60,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells, because adult stem cells have a proven record at saving lives and improving health.
Here are a few samples of adult stem cell advances in the last year.
Heart damage. Adult stem cells continue to pile up the evidence for their success at improving the health of damaged hearts. Repair of damaged heart muscle in patients has been documented both for new heart attack damage as well as for patients with chronic heart failure. Doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles used adult stem cells from the hearts of the patients themselves, grown in the lab and then injected back into the patients’ own hearts. They found that the adult stem cells could re-grow damaged heart muscle and reduce scars in the heart tissue. Meanwhile Yale scientists used a young girl’s own bone marrow adult stem cells to grow heart tissue and blood vessels to repair the girl’s congenital heart problem. And doctors from the Texas Heart Institute in Houston presented evidence that adult stem cells from a patient’s own bone marrow could repair damaged areas of hearts suffering from severe heart failure, allowing the heart to increase its pumping capacity to deliver oxygenated blood to the body.
Muscle repair. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have shown that adult stem cells from the muscle of young mice can improve the health and extend the life of aged mice. While this doesn’t mean that the cells are truly the fountain of youth, it highlights the possibility of using adult stem cells for muscle repair, as well as the ability eventually to isolate “rejuvenating factors” from adult stem cells in muscle or other tissues.
New windpipes. Italian Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, who is a visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, continues to improve on his procedure to grow new windpipes for patients. Dr. Macchiarini has grown new trachea for at least eight patients, using the patient’s own adult stem cells from bone marrow to grow functional windpipes in patients with cancer or other tracheal problems. His most recent advance this year was using a synthetic substrate on which the adult stem cells are seeded, allowing them to grow and take the shape of a normal windpipe.
Grow your own transfusion. French scientists showed for the first time that a few adult stem cells from a patient could be used to grow enough red blood cells in the lab for a transfusion. The adult stem cells efficiently produced new cells that survived transfusion back into the patient’s body and functioned normally.
Editor’s note. Dr. Prentice is Vice President and Research Director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.