Stem Cell Research: Saving Life Without Destroying It

Stem Cell Research: Saving Life Without Destroying It

Advocates of human embryo destruction say they must destroy life to save it. But one 16-year-old cancer survivor says it’s not true.

By Candi Cushman

[Pro-Life Infonet Note: Candi Cushman is an associate editor with Citizen magazine.]

He was only 11 years old when the diagnosis came: an advanced case of myloid leukemia. It was the worst kind of leukemia, doctors said — the form of bone marrow cancer most resistant to chemotherapy. For the next three years, Nathan Salley, a slender, bright-eyed boy with a shock of sandy blonde hair, endured round after round of painful spinal taps, radiation and chemotherapy that seemingly had no effect — except to leave Nathan exhausted and nauseated. No longer able to attend his Christian school in Arvada, Colo., he began taking home courses.

“Friends were supportive, but the cancer treatment was awful,” recalled Nathan. “I lost my hair and appetite, but I tried hard to do as many things as I could. . . . Soccer teammates put my number on their jerseys for the remainder of the season.” Then, in July 1999, hope arrived in an unexpected place — an umbilical cord from Spain. Donated by a mother who gave birth to a baby boy, the cord carried a treasure trove of healthy stem cells that exactly matched Nathan’s.

At age 14, he became the center of a cutting edge science experiment — and of political debate –as one of the oldest children to ever receive stem cells from an umbilical cord.

Scientists recently discovered that stem cells, unlike most human cells which only perform certain functions, can produce different types of tissue, thus giving them the exciting potential to cure disease and restore damaged organs.

Though President Bush has limited funding to research on embryos already destroyed by in-vitro fertilization clinics, maverick scientists are pushing ahead.

But that potential has produced a frenzy of ethically questionable experiments — human cloning, the destruction of human embryos and fetal tissue research — that help scientists get at those coveted stem cells.

Though President Bush limited funding to research on embryos already destroyed by in-vitro fertilization clinics, maverick scientists are pushing ahead. On Nov. 26, a private firm called Advanced Cell Technology riveted the nation by announcing it had cloned a human embryo. Why? Researchers wanted embryo stem cells. Calling it “therapeutic cloning,” the company’s president, Michael West, said he just wanted to “save people’s lives who are sick.” In other words, he’s making expendable humans to be destroyed for other lives deemed more valuable.

The government currently takes a hands off approach toward human cloning and embryo destruction — it doesn’t fund it; but it doesn’t ban it either.

This October, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., proposed amendments to the appropriations bill that would fund research on new embryos created “in excess of clinical need.” Conflict broke out in Congress as pro-life Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan., countered with amendments that banned human cloning and the creation of human embryos for research. Worried that friction wouldn’t bode well after Sept. 11, senators agreed to put off the debate until February or March.

Brownback, angered by the human cloning announcement in November, sought a six-month ban on human cloning last week but liberals thwarted the effort. They also want more federal funding of embryonic stem cell research than President Bush has said he will allow.

“We must not say to millions of sick or injured human beings ‘go ahead and die and stay paralyzed because we believe . . . a clump of cells is more important than you are,’ ” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY. What he didn’t say is that scientists already are using stem cells found in adult bodies and in umbilical cords to create new tissue and treat thousands of sick individuals.

As one of those individuals, Nathan underwent a groundbreaking procedure in which his own blood marrow cells were destroyed and replaced with healthy stem cells from the donated cord. What makes Nathan’s case unique is that, as an older child, he needed more stem cells than are in the umbilical cord. So before transplanting them into Nathan’ s body, scientists treated the cord cells with growth vitamins, in essence, making healthy cells multiply in a sick person’s body.

Amazingly, the cells created a new bone marrow devoid of disease, and two years later Nathan’s leukemia is in complete remission. Now 16, he is once again an honor roll student and soccer player at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada. Nathan testified about his recovery during a congressional hearing on stem cell research last July. “As a result of this groundbreaking procedure, I am proof that the medical community does not need to destroy life to save it,” he told lawmakers, speaking softly as his parents sat behind him holding hands and fighting back tears.

Scientific evidence backs his assertion. Once touted as the new 21st century cure-all, embryonic stem cell experiments are losing ground to alternative cell therapies that don’t destroy life. Just in the last three months, cells found in adult bodies, in umbilical cords and placenta have been used to treat cancer, grow new eye corneas and repair heart damage.

“Apparently our traditional views need to be reevaluated,” admitted Eric Olson, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who supports embryonic research. Even the secular press, which last year was loudly lauding embryo experimentation, took note.

“Until now, researchers thought that stem cells from embryos offer the best hope for rebuilding damaged organs,” reported NBC Nightly News’ Robert Bazell. “But this latest research shows that the embryos, which are politically controversial, may not be necessary.”

Some of the nondestructive cell procedures generating the most excitement include:

Heart therapy:

With more than 7 million Americans suffering heart attacks each year, heart disease is the nation’s leading killer. So it is of no small significance that non-embryonic cells show great promise in repairing heart damage.

In Japan, researchers have used individuals’ own bone marrow cells to increase blood flow in previously untreatable coronary arteries, according to studies presented at the American Heart Association’s meeting in mid November. And a Fort Lauderdale-based company called Bioheart, Inc. repaired heart damage in 10 European patients by taking muscle cells from their thighs and transplanting them in their hearts.

Called “tissue regeneration,” the procedure already is used to grow new skin, bone and eye tissue, but this marked the first time it was used to treat an organ as complex as the heart. The success created a buzz among heart specialists, some deeming it the biggest breakthrough since heart transplants.

“We don’t have many good options [for treating heart attacks], said Dr. Donald D. Glower, a professor of surgery at Duke University’s medical center. “This is one of the more promising avenues. It could eventually become a very, very powerful tool.”

The Brain:

Challenging claims that only embryonic cells can create brain cells, researchers at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia say they have converted stem cells from human bone marrow into neurons (brain cells), and a neuroscientist in California announced that cadaver brains also supply valuable neurons. That means adult stem cells could have the potential to treat Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis.

Animal experiments also show promise: At the University of South Florida in Tampa, scientists injected umbilical cord stem cells into rats that had suffered strokes. Amazingly, the cells blended with surrounding brain tissue and formed healthy neural cells.

Molecular biologist Freda Miller of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, published a study in September showing that adult stem cells found in skin can develop into brain cells. Furthermore, skin cells are easier to harvest than embryonic cells, reported Miller.

“The dogma used to be that if you were a stem cell in [adult] bone marrow, you could only make blood cells, or if you were a stem cell in skin, you could only make skin,” said Rondal Worton, head of Canada’s Stem Cell Network. “There’s now enough lab work to say the dogma was wrong.”

Ironically, one of the main arguments made by embryonic research supporters is that experiments should continue until scientists know which cells therapies work best. While arguing for embryo research two years ago, the federally funded National Bioethics Advisory Commission declared that “the derivation of stem cells from embryos Gis justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.” Now Dr. David Prentice, co-founder of Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, wants the government to keep its word.

“I have somewhere around 300 published papers documenting over the last three years the success of adult stem cells,” Prentice said, who teaches life science at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. “Adult stem cells can change into other tissue, they are already treating patients and they are showing much more success in animals. But there are probably less than 50 studies on embryo stem cells and even those studies don’t show what they want.”

Take, for instance, the glowing media reports last spring that embryonic cells injected in diabetic mice produced insulin. “But what actually happened was that they made 1/50th the amount of insulin [they needed] and the diabetic mice still died,” clarified Prentice.

Not reported in the media was the fact that, one year before, Florida researchers had successfully used adult pancreatic stem cells in diabetic mice. Roughly 10 days later, the mice no longer needed insulin shots, said Prentice.

After Nathan Salley took his turn speaking at the congressional hearing, embryonic research advocates trotted out their biggest guns — high profile celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore, who chairs the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s. Fox told lawmakers that “stem cell research offers the chance of a medical miracle” and has the potential to “literally save millions of lives.”

But a closer look at the evidence sheds doubt on that claim. Consider what happened when embryo brain cells harvested from fetuses were injected into the brains of Parkinson’s patients. A few of the patients experienced a small degree of improvement, reported The New England Journal of Medicine last May. But the others developed more severe symptoms than before, including constant jerky motions.

“While the experiment did not specifically involve stem cells, the results served as a reminder that any cells, once implanted, can have not only unwanted but irreversible side effects,” concluded Stephen S. Hall, a New York Times contributing writer and author of Invisible Frontiers, a book about biotechnology.

Another favorite argument of embryonic research advocates is that embryo cells are more flexible than adult stem cells. But there is a dark side to that advantage — in addition to being more flexible, they are also less controllable and have more potential to form tumors.

American citizens didn’t hear about that danger when the media reported that scientists in Israel made embryo stem cells produce insulin. “The popular press said, ‘Oh, now we are going to cure diabetes,'” said Prentice. “But when I read the scientific paper, they only got 1 percent of the cells to make insulin, the rest was a mix of a few muscle cells, nerve cells and even cells still growing — which means that if you inject diabetics patients with this you are going to give them a tumor, not cure them.”

Admittedly, adult stem cell benefits also need more testing to be certain, Prentice said. But the media has repeatedly embellished the advantages of embryonic experiments while understating the success of alternative research.

Back in Colorado, Nathan Salley just wants his life to return to normal — no more tiring trips to Washington, no more media interviews and, most importantly, no more sickness. With his leukemia in remission, he wants to be an ordinary teenager — one who is no longer defined by a disease or a political debate, but instead anonymously enjoying high school soccer games and pizza parties.

And if scientific research continues in the right direction — toward nondestructive stem cell therapy already proven to work — perhaps hundreds of other children like Nathan also can have that hope, a hope for life that doesn’t come at the expense of human dignity.

“I am not a doctor, a scientist or a theologian,” Nathan told Congress. “But, speaking as one cancer survivor who benefited from cord cell treatment, it does not seem right to me to terminate living human embryos based on mere speculation that they could lead to cures — when obvious alternatives have not been exhausted.”

[Citizen Magazine; December Issue; Pro-Life Infonet December 29, 2001]


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