BIOETHICS: by Babette FrancisNews Weekly
Embryo research and the tooth fairy
, October 9, 2004
"Stem cell research likened to work in Holocaust camps" was the dramatic headline in the Melbourne Age earlier this year. Age
journalist Michelle Grattan was reporting on a paper that Federal MP, Christopher Pyne, had presented at a Right to Life conference in Melbourne. Mr Pyne had likened the destructive extraction of stem cells from human embryos, to experiments in Nazi death camps. (The Age
, June 28).
However, the late unlamented Dr Mengele aside, Grattan omitted to mention that embryonic stem cells have so far not resulted in any successful treatment for any disease, nor are they likely to. In fact, when implanted in animal trials, they have often grown into tumours.
However, Laura Dominguez and Susan Fajt never thought they would walk again after near-fatal automobile accidents that left them paralysed with severe spinal-cord injuries. But once they received treatments with their own adult stem-cells, they were able to walk with the aid of braces. Their stories were the focus of a recent press conference by US Senator Sam Brownback on human cloning and stem-cell research.Cloning
Brownback has led the charge to pass a ban on all forms of human cloning and he hoped the success stories would help turn the tide of the media and lobbying onslaught for embryonic stem-cell research that increased in intensity in the wake of President Ronald Reagan's death.
Brownback spoke about how adult stem-cells, taken from numerous ethical sources such as umbilical cord blood, fat cells and bone marrow, have proven effective, while embryonic stem-cells have yet to cure or help any patients.
Because of the vast differences in effectiveness, private companies and investors are focusing their money on adult stem-cells.
"The vast bulk in the private field is going into adult stem-cell research because that's where the bulk of the results are," Brownback said.
Focus on the Family senior policy analyst for bioethics, Carrie Gordon Earll, said Laura and Susan's stories are proof that adult stem-cells are effective.
"Embryonic stem-cell research has not treated one patient," Earll said. "The only thing it has offered is mice with tumours and a lot of public-relations noise. Non-embryonic stem-cells on the other hand, literally help the lame to walk and the blind to see - without destroying one human life in the process."
Laura Dominguez was a quadriplegic at the age of 16 after the accident, but treatment using her olfactory sinus stem-cells helped her walk with braces. (Similar work is being done in Brisbane). Susan Fajt benefited from an experimental new adult stem-cell treatment. A dramatic video was shown to the Senate committee showing Dominguez swimming without assistance, thanks to the adult stem-cell treatments.
A Parkinson's-disease patient, Dennis Turner, testified about the adult stem-cell treatment he received. Turner gained relief from his shaking and other symptoms and improved so much that he could return to his favourite hobby: photographing wild animals. Not only could Turner take pictures without shaking, but he could flee from a charging rhinoceros!
According to Earll, adult stem-cell transplants have also successfully helped to restore sight to patients with chemical or heat eye-burns, including victims of Iraqi mustard-gas attacks.
Researchers have known for some time that embryonic stem-cells will not be an effective treatment for Alzheimer's because, as two researchers told a US Senate subcommittee in May 2004, it is a "whole brain disease rather than a cellular disorder such as Parkinson's". Yet Ronald Reagan's name has been shamelessly exploited in the lure for embryonic stem-cells.
More than 30 anti-cancer uses for stem cells have been tested on humans, with many already in therapeutical use. The area in which applications are moving fastest is auto-immune disease, in which the body's own protective system turns on itself. Diseases for which stem cells are being tested on humans include diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Evans syndrome, rheumatic disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's), among many others.
Studies have shown that, when injected into animals with severed spinal cords, stem cells rush to the injury site effecting repairs.
"I think the stem cells may act as a repair squad," says the leader of one of these studies, Helen Blau of the Stanford University Brain Research Institute. "They travel through the bloodstream, respond to stress, and contribute to brain cells. They clearly repair damage in muscle and other tissues."
Stem cells have also been injected into damaged hearts and become functional muscle.
These medical miracles have been achieved with adult stem-cells. While activists such as paralysed actor Christopher Reeve rage that, but for the Bush Administration and Congressional restrictions on embryo stem-cell funding, he might be walking in a few years, there are no approved treatments - and have been no human trials - involving embryonic cells. Each of the successful therapies has involved cells that require no use of embryos.
"Adult stem cells" (ASCs) also refer to cells found in non-adult tissue, such as umbilical cords, placentas and amniotic fluid and, yes, baby teeth.
You are more likely to get help from the Tooth Fairy than from unethical scientists who have cruelly raised the hopes of the disabled, claiming that they will be able to walk if only we remove the restrictions on the slicing up of human embryos.
- Babette Francis is coordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc.