July 2, 2006
Saved by Stem Cells
As Senate Debate Nears, Ethical Therapies Build Track Record
by PATRICK NOVECOSKY
WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Senate debates stem cell laws this summer, they should learn a lesson from Mary Schneider.
When she saw her 2-year-old son’s fists balling up and his arms getting spastic, she knew she had to do something drastic.
Ryan Schneider was diagnosed with a mild form of cerebral palsy before his third birthday. Fortunately, Mary and her husband, Steve, had stored the boy’s cord blood with the Cord Blood Registry when he was born.
The blood is stored as a source of adult stem cells, which doctors have found effective. A bill sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., would give federal support to the use of stem cells that come from destroying embryos — an approach that has yielded no positive results.
Last October, a Duke University doctor performed a procedure that injected adult stem cells from Ryan’s cord blood into the back of hand.
“By Christmas, he was a different child,” said Schneider, a member of Visitation Catholic Church in Batavia, Ill. “It happened very quickly. He started speaking in sentences within two weeks. We could understand him. The dexterity in his arms and hands started returning after about 60 days. Every day it was like waking up to a new child.”
The injected adult stem cells migrate to the damaged tissue (and other tissue as well) and take signals from surrounding tissues. They then become those particular cells and often repair damaged cells. Why this happens is not yet clear, but may be due to the innate adaptability of adult stem cells.
The Schneiders were one of five families who shared their stories at a June 20 news conference and reception for people who had had successful treatment with adult stem cells. The event, sponsored by the Do No Harm coalition, was designed to put a human face on treatments using adult stem cells.
The coalition, made up of scientists, bioethicists and other backers, opposes embryonic stem-cell research on moral and scientific grounds, said spokesman Gene Tarne.
Stem cells are undifferentiated, primitive cells in the bone marrow that have the ability both to multiply and to differentiate into specific blood cells and other cell/tissue types. This ability allows them to replace cells that have died, and they have been used to replace defective cells and/or tissues.
Adult stem cells are present in human tissue, but embryonic stem cells are present only in the early stages of embryonic development.
Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Adult stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
By the end of this summer, the Senate will likely debate the Specter legislation and a “compromise bill” sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
The Santorum bill would increase federal funding for ways to derive embryonic-like stem cells for research. The senator claims there are no moral problems with funding such research.
“There are no ethical concerns because we’re not creating human life and destroying human life,” Santorum told the Register. “This is simply a scientific technique to gather cells for use for therapies in the future.”
Pope John Paul II said that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), John Paul said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers or organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.
“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”
The Do No Harm event helped draw attention to the competing bills in the U.S. Senate regarding stem-cell research.
President Bush has said he would veto the Specter bill if passed by the Senate. On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush announced a policy allowing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research only when it uses stem-cell lines created on or before that date.
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life secretariat, would like to see more of this kind of success. But he fears senators are eager to push stem cell research which destroys embryos and has other problems besides.
“It rests on a factual error as well,” he said. “There are very few frozen embryos in this country designated for research. The vast majority — 88% by one study — are designated only for the parents’ reproductive efforts and those are off limits.
“This whole idea of the spare embryos in fertility clinics is only a transitional stage,” Doerflinger explained. “It’s only a come-on to get to the next stage of making embryos just to destroy them. It’s also only the beginning of much broader road to creating and destroying life.”
He said the Santorum bill has the full backing of the U.S. bishops.
“The bill funds alternative ways to get embryonic-like stem cells without using an embryo,” he said. “The policy of this bill is very sound. We want the versatility of these cells without the moral problem. Under this bill, you cannot fund anything that gets a cell from a human embryo. Embryo is defined, as it has been in the appropriations bills, for the last nine years. It’s a very sound, very tight definition.”
Part of the bill’s appeal may be because of a bias in the media and scientific world toward embryonic stem cells, according to Dr. Alan Moy, president of Cellular Engineering Technologies in Iowa City.
Scientists and the media are turning to state governments to fund embryonic research because private funding is not available.
Moy, a Catholic, is working to establish the John Paul II Stem Cell Institute to further adult stem-cell research.
Despite advances, stem-cell research is still an “immature area in the scientific field,” he explained. But scientists “are finding more tissues derived from adult stem cells that were first thought to only be done with embryonic.”
To date, more than 70 treatments are available using adult stem cells, according to the Do No Harm coalition. There are no treatments available using embryonic stem cells.
“From a scientific perspective, it’s adult stem cells and cord blood that are actually working to provide benefits for patients,” Do No Harm spokesman Tarne said. “Even though, in some instances, these are not yet full cures, it’s the first steps in developing this very promising field. We don’t have to go down an unethical path to make medical progress — good science, good ethics.”
Santorum, who is up for re-election this fall, concurred.
“I’d like to find cures for a variety of different diseases we confront in our society,” he said, “but I’m not willing to do so at the expense of throwing away all ethical or moral boundaries.”
Patrick Novecosky is based in Naples, Florida.