Both in life and in death, Christopher Reeves has become instrumental in promoting awareness for the use of stem cells in curing injuries and disease. However, it is possible that he and many of us have been misled by the promises we keep hearing about embryonic stem cells being the key to curing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and a host of other maladies. Research to this point shows that adult stem cells, not embryonic, are far more likely to produce successful treatments. Although we hear plenty of general testimonies that play on our emotions, there appears to be almost a blackout of accurate scientific information about stem cells. Stem cells are cells that can proliferate (duplicate many times) and differentiate (change into specialized cell types needed by the body). For example, stem cells in your blood continuously produce new blood cells to replace worn-out ones.
Stem cells found in both adults and embryos are currently being studied by researchers to replace cells lost through disease or injury. However, research is showing that adult stem cells are actually medically superior to embryonic stem cells in many instances. First, a patient’s body will reject embryonic stem cells as foreign. Adult stem cells obtained from the patient’s own body are perfectly matched genetically and do not cause tissue rejection. In addition, embryonic stem cells are prone to abnormal genetic “expression,” and scientists acknowledge a lack of suitable tests to detect such abnormalities.
Moreover, embryonic stem cells can form teratomas, which literally mean “monster tumors.” These tumors often contain different cell types, such as teeth, hair or bone tissue. Adult stem cells, which are easier to control, do not form these tumors. Proponents of embryonic stem cells allege that only embryonic stem cells can form all body tissue types, but researchers are continually showing that adult stem cells can also form specialized cells of other tissues.
For example, a University of Minnesota research team has discovered adult stem cells in human bone marrow that can be made to differentiate into many different cell types and that do not form teratomas. But adult stem cells are not the only alternative to embryonic stem cells.
Those found in the blood drained from human umbilical cords after birth can be differentiated by scientists and doctors into many types of cells needed to treat disability and disease, such as heart cells, beta islets and neurons. It is becoming increasingly common for doctors to keep the stem cells from a baby’s umbilical-cord blood in case of future health-problems.
Embryonic stem cell researchers admit they are years away from effective procedures safe enough for human use, while the medical world is continually exploding with new treatments using adult stem cells.
For example, American spinal cord injured patients have gained some return of function after traveling to Portugal to have tissues rich in stem cells from their own nasal cavities transplanted into their spinal cords. The Spinal Cord Society will be undertaking human trials in January, using this technique in combination with other treatments. Stem cells isolated from the blood of a teen, whose heart was pierced with a 3-inch nail, were injected into the coronary artery that supplies blood to the heart. A few days later, his heart’s functioning began improving, indicating possible rebuilding of heart muscle. Today, he is again playing high school soccer.
A California man with Parkinson’s disease was treated by removing tissue from his own brain, culturing stem cells from this tissue and then injecting them back into his brain. A year later, the man’s symptoms were reduced by more than 80 percent. He has remained in clinical remission for four years.
One astute participant in the second presidential debate asked the candidates: “Thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical-cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn’t it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?”