Beginning of the End for Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

January 01, 2005  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Tech Central Station  ·  Biotech

Supporters of expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research were disappointed by President Bush’sState of the Union Address, which indicated no softening of restrictions. Instead, he said he’d work to “ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation.” But those who truly believe ESC research will bring medical breakthroughs have naught to fear. For there’s a far more promising approach, likelier to produce more benefits and much sooner.

We’re being flooded with exciting new developments from the alternatives to ESCs, called adult stem cells. Taken from a person’s own body or from umbilical cords or placenta, these cells are treating ever more diseases. Further, ASC research in humans and animals keeps biting away at the alleged trump card of ESCs – that only they can be transformed into every type of cell in the body. Cardiologist Douglas Losordo’s research lab at Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston has now become the latest indicate ASCs can do just that.

Reporting their results in the February Journal of Clinical Investigation, they extracted from the blood stream of three humans stem cells that orginated in the bone marrow, thereby saving patients the trouble and pain of direct marrow extraction. They found what they believe to be a heretofore undiscovered type of cell, then injected these into the hearts of rats that had suffered heart attacks and subsequent – formerly permanentdamage.

It’s not only hearts. Many parts of the human body are already being repaired with adult stem cells.

Some of the cells became new heart muscle while others became new blood vessels. Indeed, they grew twice as many new vessels as other rats given a fake treatment. They also grew far less scar tissue, which impedes heart function.

As I have written on this website, marrow stem cells have been used to induce either muscle growth or vessel growth in human hearts in hundreds of patients in labs throughout the world. But this appears to be the first time both were grown at the same time by a single type of cell. Losordo’s team is now overseeing a trial using these cells on patients with untreatable severe angina. “The safety looks good and majority of patients are doing much better,” he told me.

More exciting yet, Losordo also conducted experiments showing their cells can also become nerve tissue. That means they could be transformed into all three major categories of cells, making them just as pliable as ESCs theoretically are.

Yet several other labs have also found different ASCs (all from marrow) that seem to have this same property. One of them was that of Ira Black, a neurologist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "I can’t say I’m surprised" at Losordo’s findings Black told me. "It’s consistent with studies going on across the world. And one of the most exciting areas now is the use of ASCs in heart failure."

ESC scientist/activist Irving Weissman is among those who doggedly insist there’s no good evidence that any type of adult stem cell can be converted into any other type.

In fact, Brazil has just announced an ambitious heart-stem cell experiment involving 1,200 patients and 40 institutions across the country. The aim is to eventually replace traditional heart treatments with stem cell therapy, such that 200,000 lives could be saved within three years if the therapy proves effective. It could also reduce the government’s costs for heart treatment by $14.2 million a month, the health ministry said.

Brazil will also be financing this year studies with stem cells for treating spinal cord diseases, diabetes and degenerative nerve disorders like Parkinson’s. The U.S. already is. While no ESC has even made it into animal testing, ASCs are now being used in about 300 human clinical trials and are treating over 80 different diseases.

As to the plasticity of Losordo’s stem cells, Black says converting an ASC into a completely different kind of mature cell "was once thought impossible." Indeed some ESC researchers desperate for federal handouts still doggedly insist it is – on par with saying lab rats can’t squeak. The media rarely hesitate to repeat their claims. But "now 10 to 20 different labs have shown" such transformation is possible, says Black.

Losordo, however, says a major advantage of his adult stem cells is that they’re much easier to grow than previously-discovered types. His team multiplied them 140 times with no change in their structure or effectiveness. Now, "We’ve got freezers full of them" he says.

He told me he thinks his work combined with that of others could "render moot the debate between ESCs and ASCs." Says Losordo, "We’re entering the second phase of development of adult stem cells. We’ll soon be working on methods to enhance the efficiency of adult stem cells . . . while ESCs aren’t even in the starting gate yet."

He notes ESC researchers continue to be flummoxed in trying to get ESC cells to become specific types of mature cells without inducing runaway cell growth – malignancies called “teratomas” or “monster cancer.”

Losordo bemoans the broad-based assault by ESC researchers and the media to exaggerate the potential of ESC research while downplaying or even ignoring tremendous breakthroughs in ASC work. "I don’t have any personal religious or other objections to ESC research despite the vowels in my name," he says, referring to his Italian Catholic heritage. "But as a clinical investigator I have an obligation to develop therapies that appear to be of most use to my patients."

Would that ESC boosters felt the same.