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Overview

Stem cells are unique cells that have the potential to differentiate into the various cell types that compose organs, tissues, and bodily fluids. As a result, stem cells play an essential role in sustaining life by replacing cells as they wear out or are destroyed.

There are two general categories of stem cells – embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and adult stem cells (ASCs). ESCs are undeveloped human cells that are present in a human embryo within the first 10 days of fertilization. ASCs come from umbilical cord blood or can be developed from other cells like skin cells. ASCs are differentiated versions of ESCs that grow into one of the more than 200 different cell types in the human body.

Research involving embryonic stem cells is particularly troubling from a pro-life perspective because it requires the destruction of human life at its earliest stage of development. Research involving adult stem cells is free from that ethical and moral burden because adult stem cell research does not harm or destroy human life.

Issue Analysis

The most important consideration when evaluating stem cell research methods is ethics. While actions to find new ways to help those suffering from disease may be well-intentioned, they can never justify taking another life. When a sperm and egg join together to form another growing human being, we must respect that process and recognize that we have no right to interject and take life. Respect for life begins with recognizing its inherent value. Destroying innocent life, even for a noble cause, is never justifiable.

The primary ethical concern from research involving stem cells is that embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of human life. ESCs must be taken out of a human embryo in a manner that destroys the budding life if the cells are to be usable for research.

In contrast, use of ASCs from human tissue does not require the destruction of life and has already provided a wealth of clinical applications for autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular damage, and cancer. Although research using both cell types has been ongoing, several breakthroughs have made it possible to explore the theoretical benefits of ESCs and similar cells without needlessly destroying human embryos.

Emerging research methods are already showing that even though no clinical use of ESCs has ever been developed, scientists clinging to their hypothetical hope of benefits can look for possible applications without destroying life. In the laboratory, scientists are now able to take stem cells directly from adults and reprogram them to have much of the growth potential of an ESC.[1] Newer developments are even showing that it is possible for scientists to remove stem cells from a growing embryo without taking life or inhibiting growth potential.[2] Even though all current clinical uses of stem cells have come exclusively from ASCs, scientists now possess the technology to explore the theoretical benefits of ESCs while maintaining the highest ethical standards.

Peer-Reviewed Scientific Research

To date, there are at least 80 confirmed clinical applications for adult stem cells and zero for embryonic stem cells. [3] Hundreds of peer-reviewed research reports describe success after success of adult stem cell applications. In spite of so much evidence to the contrary, some scientists still postulate that ESCs will play a role in future medical treatments. Positive developments in research methodology have made it possible for scientists to explore the theoretical benefits of ESCs without ever destroying an embryo. At the same time, ASCs are being used every day to save lives in the United States and all over the world.

ASC treatments are not hypothetical laboratory speculations. In fact, many are successfully used in treating humans today. This includes:

  • Treatments associated with various cancers (e.g., brain, retina, ovarian, breast, testicular, leukemia, lymphoma)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • cartilage/bone diseases
  • corneal scarring
  • systemic lupus
  • multiple sclerosis
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • anemia
  • immunodeficiency diseases
  • scleromyxedema
  • thalassaemia
  • corneal diseases

Initial clinical trials with ASCs show promise to repair heart damage. ASCs are making good on what embryonic stem cells have only hoped to do. Fortunately, the supply of ASCs is plentiful. In contrast, the number of ESCs is limited to “leftover” embryos stored at infertility clinics.

Successes of Adult Stem Cells

Peer-reviewed scientific research reports are overwhelmingly positive for adult stem cells. These reports routinely indicate that ASCs can be easily generated, have the ability to form many (or perhaps even all) human tissues, and can produce sustained disease remissions.

A major breakthrough in this arena occurred in November 2007 when Professor Ian Wilmut, famous for cloning Dolly the sheep, announced his discovery of a process for creating stem cells from human skin. At the time of his announcement, he made it known that he no longer wished to pursue embryonic stem cell research. Instead, he stated that he saw the future of science being in a new technique wherein adult stem cells are modified to have embryonic properties. In this way, all controversy is avoided.[4]

This new technique is already showing success. In May 2009, research using adult stem cells saved the life of a Texas boy suffering from sickle cell anemia.[5] More recently, a man suffering from tracheal cancer was grown a new windpipe in a laboratory from his own ASCs.[6] The man is making a remarkable recovery and has been given a full life expectancy. Adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood were used to treat a young girl’s brain injury bringing her from a vegetative state to a fully functioning kindergartener.[7] A man who was essentially paralyzed by scleroderma was given only a few months to live before an adult stem cell transplant restored about 80% of his former mobility.[8] See the list at the end of this document for a full list of diseases and ailments successfully treated by adult stem cells.

Problems with Embryonic Stem Cells

Peer-reviewed scientific research shows disappointing results for embryonic stem cells. These reports routinely point to ESCs as unstable, often tumor-forming, slow-growing, and difficult to keep alive.[9] One of the greatest difficulties with these cells is their proclivity to form tumors, making human trials a very dangerous undertaking for the foreseeable future. For example, a 13-year-old Russian child was injected with embryonic stem cells in an effort to treat a congenital neurodegenerative disease. Not long after his treatment, doctors removed several tumors from his spine and brain, having determined that the cell masses were derived from at least two different humans.[10]There are currently two clinical trials in the U.S. using ESCs – a third trial was suspended when the company decided to pursue other (presumably more promising) programs.[11] Only very preliminary results of these trials have been reported thus far.[12]

Arizona Law

In Arizona, a Center for Arizona Policy (CAP)-supported law prohibits destructive human embryonic stem cell research and bans public funding for embryonic stem cell research.

New Developments in Ethical Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Under the Bush administration, federal funding was restricted for ESC research because of the ethical concerns in destroying human embryos. The lack of funding from the U.S. government forced biotech companies to explore ways to continue research on the theoretical benefits of ESCs without taking life. These efforts proved successful when, in February 2011, biotech research firm Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced they had secured a patent on a procedure that allows scientists to explore the full potential of ESCs without destroying the embryo.[13]

ACT’s newly-patented method of extracting stem cells, known as the “singleblastomere technique,” is derived from a procedure used during in vitro fertilization. Despite the fact that ESC research has not yielded a single successful clinical usage, scientists clinging to the theoretical potential of ESCs now have a method to continue research that avoids taking life and reduces the ethical concerns surrounding stem cell research.

Reprogramming ASCs to function like ESCs

The most exciting advances in stem cell research over the last decade have come as a result of developments in reprogramming ASCs into “younger cells.” These cells, also known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), return the ASCs to an earlier point in cell development. Once the cell is brought back to an early developmental “age,” it can then be reengineered to develop into a variety of different tissue types (e.g., heart tissue, brain tissue, etc.).[14] In studying iPSCs, scientists now have the ability to study stem cells that look, act, and function like ESCs. Not only does the use of iPSCs avoid the destruction of life, but the reprogramming procedure used by scientists maintains cellular stability. As a result, iPSCs do not face the tumor recurrences that have plagued ESC research.[15]

New sources for ethical stem cells continue to appear. Researchers recently announced finding stem cells in human urine.[16]

Umbilical Cord Blood Donations

One rich source of adult stem cells is umbilical cord blood. Since the 1980s, scientists have been examining the benefits of umbilical cord blood stem cells. Studies began to show that a cord blood transplant is nearly analogous to bone marrow. In addition, its prevalence and cost-efficiency make cord blood transplants an ideal alternative to costly bone marrow transplants. This is particularly important for those who have a difficult time finding a bone marrow match.[17]

With estimates of around 300,000 births every day around the world, umbilical cord blood is a growing source of stem cells, and its potential goes far beyond its current uses.[18] Finnish scientists recently announced a new technique to isolate stem cells in umbilical cord blood, making cord blood even more valuable.[19]

Unfortunately, many are not aware of how important this resource is – three out of every four women consider themselves “minimally informed” about cord blood banking, highlighting a need for increased public education on donation options.[20] The continuous stream of breakthroughs in stem cell treatments has spurred an increase in demand for umbilical cord blood that will be surpassing the currently available supply of these valuable cells.

Arizona Law

A 2006 CAP-supported Arizona law requires doctors to provide pregnant women with a pamphlet made available by the Department of Health Services that describes options related to umbilical cord blood donations.[21] The brochure informs women about public and private cord blood banking, so they can choose whether to pay to keep the cord blood for their family or donate it to one of at least 21 public banks in the U.S.[22] It also explains the benefits of cord blood stem cells, treatments currently available, as well as the public and private opportunities for those wishing to bank cord blood.[23]

Adult Stem Cell Treatments

While embryonic stem cells have failed to successfully treat any human diseases, adult stem cells have been used to treat each of the following diseases in humans:[24]

Cancers

  1. Brain Cancer
  2. Retinoblastoma
  3. Ovarian Cancer
  4. Skin Cancer: Merkel Cell Carcinoma
  5. Testicular Cancer
  6. Tumors: Abdominal Organs
  7. Lymphoma
  8. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  9. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  10. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
  11. Acute Myelogenous Leukemia
  12. Acute Biphenotypic Leukemia
  13. Acute Undifferentiated Leukemia
  14. Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia
  15. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
  16. Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia
  17. Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia
  18. Cancer of the lymph nodes: Angioimmunoblastic Lymphadenopathy
  19. Multiple Myeloma
  20. Myelodysplasia
  21. Breast Cancer
  22. Neuroblastoma
  23. Renal Cell Carcinoma
  24. Various Solid Tumors
  25. Soft Tissue Sarcoma
  26. Ewing’s Sarcoma
  27. Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia
  28. Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis
  29. POEMS syndrome
  30. Myelofibrosis

Auto-Immune Diseases

  1. Systemic Lupus
  2. Sjogren’s Syndrome
  3. Myasthenia
  4. Autoimmune Cytopenia
  5. Scleromyxedema
  6. Scleroderma
  7. Crohn’s Disease
  8. Behcet’s Disease
  9. Rheumatoid Arthritis
  10. Juvenile Arthritis
  11. Multiple Sclerosis
  12. Polychondritis
  13. Systemic Vasculitis
  14. Alopecia Universalis
  15. Buerger’s Disease

Cardiovascular

  1. Acute Heart Damage
  2. Chronic Coronary Artery Disease

Ocular

  1. Corneal Regeneration

Immunodeficiencies

  1. Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome
  2. X-linked Lymphoproliferative Syndrome
  3. X-linked Hyper Immunoglobulin M Syndrome

Neural Degenerative Diseases/Injuries

  1. Parkinson’s Disease
  2. Spinal Cord Injury
  3. Stroke Damage

Anemias and Other Blood Conditions

  1. Sickle Cell Anemia
  2. Sideroblastic Anemia
  3. Aplastic Anemia
  4. Pure Red Cell Aplasia
  5. Amegakaryocytic Thrombocytopenia
  6. Thalassemia
  7. Primary Amyloidosis
  8. Diamond Blackfan Anemia
  9. Fanconi’s Anemia
  10. Chronic EpsteinBarr Infection
  11. Refractory Anemia8
  12. Refractory Anemia with Ringed Sideroblasts
  13. Refractory Anemia with Excess Blasts8
  14. Refractory Anemia with Excess Blasts in Transformation
  15. Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria

Wounds and Injuries

  1. Limb Gangrene
  2. Surface Wound Healing
  3. Jawbone Replacement
  4. Skull Bone Repair

Other Metabolic Disorders

  1. Hurler’s Syndrome
  2. Osteogenesis Imperfecta
  3. Krabbe Leukodystrophy
  4. Osteopetrosis
  5. Cerebral XLinked Adrenoleukodystrophy

Liver Disease

  1. Chronic Liver Failure
  2. Liver Cirrhosis

Bladder Disease

  1. EndStage Bladder Disease

Talking Points

  • Human embryos are fully human and deserve protection under the law. Destroying one life to save another is never justifiable. A willingness to destroy a human life to preserve the health of another violates the most basic principles of civilized society: a good end cannot justify a bad means, and people are never to be used as a commodity for the benefit of another.
  • While embryonic stem cells have never successfully treated any human disease, adult stem cells have been used to treat at least 80. In fact, adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells, seem to be the most promising path for medical advances. Adult stem cell based therapy is now being used for treating lymphoma, lupus, Sickle cell anemia, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, stroke, anemia, cancer, repair of cardiac tissue after heart attacks, diabetes, and many other conditions. In contrast, there are no current therapies in use based on embryonic stem cells.

Conclusion

In addition to the pressing ethical and moral questions, embryonic stem cells are an unproven and ineffective form of research. However, adult stem cells are a successful, ethical means of treating and curing many diseases. Advances in the study of these cells are allowing researchers to follow the potential benefits of ESCs with cells induced to perform like an embryonic cell. Most importantly, we now know that it is possible to conduct research on ESCs without destroying life. Stem cell research holds great potential for humankind, but advances should never be made at the cost of destroying life.

 

© January 2014 Center for Arizona Policy, Inc. All rights reserved.
This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.


[1] Monya Baker, Adult cells reprogrammed to pluripotency, without tumors, Nature Reports, December 6, 2007, www.nature.com/stemcells/2007/0712/071206/full/stemcells.2007.124.html (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[2] ACT Secures Patent to Generate Embryonic Stem Cells Without Embryo Destruction, Advanced Cell Technology, February 23, 2011, www.advancedcell.com/news-and-media/press-releases/act-secures-patent-to-generate-embryonic-stem-cells-without-embryo-destruction/index.asp (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[3] Diseases Treated with Stem Cells, StemCyte.com, www.stemcyte.com/why-save-cord-blood/diseases-treated-with-stem-cells (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[4] Roger Highfield, Dolly Creator Prof Ian Wilmut Shuns Cloning, The Telegraph, November 16, 2007, available at www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3314696/Dolly-creator-Prof-Ian-Wilmut-shuns-cloning.html.

[5] Charlie Butts. Adult stem cells cure child of sickle cell anemia, OneNewsNow, May 28, 2009, www.onenewsnow.com/culture/2009/05/26/adult-stem-cells-cure-child-of-sickle-cell-anemia#.Uj937tgguIA (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[6] David Prentice, First Successful Transplantation of a Synthetic Tissue Engineered Windpipe, Karolinska Institutet, July 7, 2011, www.ki.se/ki/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=130&a=125055&l=en&newsdep=130 (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[7] Shawndrea Thomas, Cord Blood Banking Saves Missouri Girl’s Life, Mar. 15, 2012, www.fox2now.com/2012/03/15/cord-blood-banking-saves-missouri-girls-life/ (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[8] Tony Underhill: “I Got My Life Back!”, Stem Cell Research Facts, www.stemcellresearchfacts.org/tony-underhill-inspires-by-fig/ (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[9] The “Political Science” of Stem Cells, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, May 9, 2005, available at www.stemcellresearch.org/polisci/lesson01.pdf.

[10] Monya Baker, Tumours spark stem-cell review, Nature, February 17, 2011, www.nature.com/news/2009/090217/full/457941a.html (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[11] Stem Cell Information, National Institutes of Health, June 5, 2012, www.stemcells.nih.gov/info/pages/health.aspx (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[12] Id.

[13] ACT Secures Patent to Generate Embryonic Stem Cells Without Embryo Destruction, Advanced Cell Technology, February 23, 2011, www.advancedcell.com/news-and-media/press-releases/act-secures-patent-to-generate-embryonic-stem-cells-without-embryo-destruction/index.asp (last visited Sept. 22, 2013)..

[14] Monya Baker, Adult cells reprogrammed to pluripotency, without tumors, Nature Reports, December 6, 2007, www.nature.com/stemcells/2007/0712/071206/full/stemcells.2007.124.html (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[15] Id.

[16] Shantaram Bharadwaj, et al., Multi-Potential Differentiation of Human Urine-Derived Stem Cells: Potential for Therapeutic Applications in Urology, 31 Stem Cells 1424 (2013).

[17] The Need for More Cord Blood Donations, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, www.bloodcell.transplant.hrsa.gov/CORD/The_Need/index.html#CordBloodHelps (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[18] C.P. McGuckin and N. Forraz, Potential for access to embryonic-like cells from human umbilical cord blood, 41 (Supp. 1) Cell Proliferation 31, 31 (2008).

[19] Kathleen Lees, Antibody Can Isolate Stem Cells from Umbilical Cord Blood, Science World Report, Sept. 3, 2013, www.scienceworldreport.com/articles/9240/20130903/antibody-isolate-stem-cells-umbilical-cord-blood.htm (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[20] Frances Verter, Saving umbilical cord blood saves lives, The Baltimore Sun, October 20, 2010, available at www.articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-10-20/news/bs-ed-cord-blood-20101020_1_cord-blood-umbilical-cord-cells.

[21] Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 36-112.

[22]Participating Hospitals, National Bone Marrow Donor Program, www.bethematch.org/Get_Involved/Donate_Cord_Blood/How_to_Donate/Participating_Hospitals.aspx (last visited Sept. 22, 2013)..

[23] Umbilical Cord Blood, Ariz. Dept. of Health Services, www.azdhs.gov/phs/owch/pdf/umbilical_crd_proof.pdf (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[24] Diseases Treated with Stem Cells, StemCyte.com, www.stemcyte.com/why-save-cord-blood/diseases-treated-with-stem-cells (last visited Sept. 22, 2013); see also Benefits of Stem Cells to Human Patients, Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, 2008, www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/CheckTheScore.pdf (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).