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Stem Cells Offer Therapeutic Promise (Reuters) ...Stem cells are master cells that have the ability to transform themselves into other cell types, including those in the brain,...... and that runaway growth of embryonic stem cells could produce tumors.... - Aug 09 9:41 PM ET

Al Musella's Comments: (This is his personal views and are not necessarily the views of the Musella Foundation!)


Posted on: 08/09/2001

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Thursday August 9 9:41 PM ET "Stem Cells Offer Therapeutic Promise"

Stem Cells Offer Therapeutic Promise

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush (news - web sites) announced on Thursday that he supported federal funding of research on stem cells but said such studies should be restricted to 60 existing stem-cell lines.

Following are answers to some common questions about stem cells:

-- What are stem cells?

Stem cells are master cells that have the ability to transform themselves into other cell types, including those in the brain, heart, bones, muscles and skin.

-- What are embryonic stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells are cells contained in embryos that have the ability to transform themselves into virtually any other type of cell in the body. They are called pluripotent. It is this quality that enables the tiny embryo to develop into a fully formed body. About five days after fertilization, the human embryo becomes a blastocyst -- a hollow sphere of about 100 cells. Cells in its outer layer go on to form the placenta and other organs needed to support fetal development in the uterus. The inner cells go on to form nearly all of the tissues of the body. These are the embryonic stem cells used in research.

-- What are adult stem cells?

The name is a misnomer because they are harbored in mature tissue -- in the bodies of children as well as adults. Adult stem cells are more specialized than embryonic ones and give rise to specific cell types. They are called multipotent. The mature body uses these cells as "spare parts" to replace other worn out cells. For example, certain stem cells in the bone marrow spawn red blood cells, white blood cells and blood platelets. Recent research has suggested adult stem cells can turn into many more cell types than once believed possible.

-- What is the source of embryonic stem cells?

Scientists generally harvest embryonic stem cells from embryos left over in fertility clinics after in vitro fertilization techniques. These "test-tube baby" techniques, used to help infertile couples have a baby, involve fertilizing a woman's egg cells with a man's sperm cells in a laboratory dish. Several embryos are created at a time, and not all are implanted into the mother's womb to create live births. Embryos left over by the couple are slated for destruction by the fertility clinic. These can serve as the source for deriving stem cells, a process that involves removing the blastocyst's inner cells and destroying the embryo.

-- What are the possible medical uses for stem cells?

Scientists hope to harness the transformational qualities of stem cells to provide treatments for a variety of diseases affecting millions of people worldwide. Because stem cells can turn into many other cell types with the right prompting, doctors may be able to replace tissues and organs damaged by disease or injury to restore healthy function. For example, in people with Parkinson's disease (news - web sites), injecting stem cells into the area of the brain that controls muscle movement, where the disease kills nerve cells, might regenerate the neurons and reverse the illnesses. This procedure would be called a stem cell transplantation. Therapeutic applications of stem cells potentially also could treat illnesses including: diabetes; Alzheimer's disease (news - web sites); stroke; heart attack; multiple sclerosis; blood, bone and bone marrow ailments; severe burns by providing skin grafts; spinal cord injuries, and cancer patients who have lost cells and tissue to radiation and chemotherapy.

-- What other medical uses are possible?

Using stem cells, researchers would be able to test a drug's therapeutic effects and toxic side effects in human tissue without using a laboratory animal as a proxy. Sometimes the reaction of laboratory animals to a given drug does not match the human reaction to the drug. In addition, stem cells could be harnessed and packaged to deliver gene therapies to specific targets in the body to treat genetic problems.

-- Are embryonic stem cells better than adult stem cells?

It is too early to say. Embryonic stem cells boast two important qualities: they can become almost anything in the body and they can be grown in culture in an unlimited quantity. The disadvantages are that a patient's immune system might reject transplants of embryonic stem cells just as some organ transplants are rejected, and that runaway growth of embryonic stem cells could produce tumors. Because adult stem cells would be taken from the very patient who would receive them later in treatment, there are no rejection issues. Disadvantages in adult stem cells include: doubts about whether they can transform themselves as readily as embryonic stem cells; difficulty in growing them in culture at the quantity needed to facilitate transplants, and worry that years of exposure to toxins, radiation and DNA replicating errors could leave them with genetic abnormalities.

-- What's the controversy?

For some people, the destruction of any embryo is tantamount to murdering a human being. Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and some other religious and political figures hold this view.

-- Has the federal government ever funded research involving human embryonic stem cells?

No, it has not. Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, but a 1995 law banned federal funding for any research "in which a human embryo (is) destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury greater than that allowed on fetuses in utero," or in the mother's womb.

In January 1999, the Department of Health and Human Services (news - web sites) (HHS) general counsel's office issued a legal opinion that the earlier law did not apply to stem cells derived using private money from spare embryos at fertility clinics because the stem cells themselves were not embryos and the destruction of the embryos was not financed by the government.

The National Institutes of Health (news - web sites), the government agency that funds medical research and had requested the opinion in 1998, released guidelines on Nov. 21, 2000, for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Two key conditions included were that federally funded researchers cannot derive the stem cells, a process that involves destroying an embryo, and the source of the embryos that gave rise to the stem cells must be embryos created for in vitro fertility treatment.

Shortly after being sworn into office in January, President Bush ordered HHS to reconsider its legal opinion. In April, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson directed the NIH to cancel its first scheduled meeting to consider research proposals submitted by scientists seeking federal funds for work involving human embryonic stem cells.

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