BIOETHICS: by Victor SirlNews Weekly
Australian stem cell breakthrough - adult nose cells pluripotent
, April 9, 2005
A front-page photograph in the Brisbane Courier-Mail (March 22, 2005) featured federal Health Minister Tony Abbott smiling alongside Brisbane scientist Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, while looking at lab results at Griffith University.
The headline of the story was dealing with another "test" and well-publicised details of Mr Abbott's personal life, but the purpose of his trip to Brisbane on that occasion had to do with a discovery that will have a direct and beneficial impact on numerous families, both here and overseas.
Professor Mackay-Sim and his colleagues from Griffith University were announcing a world-first scientific breakthrough after successfully growing adult stem-cells harvested from the human nose.Breakthrough
This important story, with its staggering implications for humanity, was relegated to appear as a smaller article elsewhere in the paper.
However, front page or not, the result of this research has broken new ground in stem-cell science. It means that the old argument that adult stem-cells are more difficult than embryonic stem-cells to coax into other types of cells is over.
The capacity of stem-cells to differentiate into many types of cells was an issue central to the debate concerning the use of human embryonic stem-cells for medical research. Proponents of this science claimed embryonic stem-cells had the potential to be pluripotent and plastic-like, whereas adult stem-cells were supposed to lack these features.
Embryonic stem-cell research was popularly supposed to have the potential to help cure diseases and disabilities, with New South Wales Premier Bob Carr leading calls for so-called "therapeutic cloning".
Professor Mackay-Sim, however, stated that he "did not want to get into the moral and ethical debate", but added his belief that his breakthrough with adult stem-cells did away with any need for therapeutic cloning.
Griffith University runs advertisements with famous personalities proclaiming its slogan, "Get Smarter". In future, its Institute for Cellular and Molecular Therapies team, which has achieved this historic breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, deserves to feature prominently in future advertisements. It also deserves more funding from both federal and state governments.
Previously, politicians defended human embryonic stem-cell research on the grounds that it was popularly supposed to be the only way to save lives and cure disease; but medically it has not provided a lasting cure for any sick person.
Griffith University's breakthrough in adult stem-cell research has vindicated the stance of pro-life politicians, such as Tony Abbott, who strongly opposed federal legislation which allowed "surplus" human embryos from IVF clinics to be used in medical research.
Queensland Senator Ron Boswell - the man who revealed Professor Alan Trounson's infamous white rat hoax - was exultant about the Griffith University team's achievement. He said: "Science has spoken loud and clear and come out on the side of adult stem-cells."
He congratulated the team who, he said, "have achieved this through years of hard work and minimal funding. They are the real heroes of medical science."Consequences
But leaving aside the politics and publicity, what is so special about this discovery?
Stem cells, of course, are used to repair damaged organs and body tissues, and these olfactory (nose) cells are easy to grow, and do so in high numbers.
Professor Mackay-Sim said: "These adult olfactory stem-cells appear to have the same ability as embryonic stem-cells in giving rise to many different cell types, but have the advantage that they can be obtained from all individuals, even older people who might be most in need of stem-cell therapies."
He added: "Stem cells obtained from and transplanted into the same person would not be rejected by the immune system" - a feature that gives them obvious superiority over embryonic stem-cells.
The team has successfully proven that nasal cells can be used to generate cells for the brain, liver, heart, kidney, muscle, nerve and glial; but skin repair is another area where the team believe the cells may have a use.
Moreover, an experiment using rats has demonstrated possibilities for treating cancer patients owing to the ability of the cells to transform into blood cells where irradiation has killed bone marrow.
There are three other important fields of medicine in which Professor Mackay-Sim and his colleagues are also engaged:
(1) Examining the causes of Parkinson's Disease, schizophrenia, mitochondrial disorders and epilepsy.
(2) Performing clinical trials to re-grow damaged spinal cords in humans and hopefully restore some movement to patients, following successful trials on mice.
(3) Toxicology-testing, one of the big drivers for harvesting human embryonic stem-cells.
Unfortunately, state premiers - including Peter Beattie who has labelled Queensland the "Smart State" - have been resisting Prime Minister John Howard's move to enforce current restrictions on the scientific use of human embryonic stem-cells.
This year, federal parliament is to review legislation and guidelines passed two years ago allowing, but limiting, access to "surplus" human embryos. Parliament may possibly pass further legislation.
With ethical science, such as adult stem-cell research, demonstrating that it is capable of delivering all the positive results regarding cures and treatments for illness and disability, there is no longer any excuse for gullible parliamentarians to promote unethical embryo stem-cell research that creates human life for the purpose of destroying it.
All those prominent public figures who have endorsed embryo stem-cell research - especially NSW Premier Bob Carr, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, Queensland opposition leader Lawrence Springborg and Queensland politician Michael Johnson - who promoted Professor Alan Trounson's cause even to the extent of hosting a forum on the subject in his electorate - would now do well to heed Griffith University's motto: "Get smarter."