At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. But that potential will not reveal itself on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research — from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit — and from a government willing to support that work.
– BARACK OBAMA, remarks at signing of Stem Cell Executive Order, March 9, 2009
Our stem cells can renew themselves AND are capable of transforming into a wide variety of different tissue types comprising essential organs. It is this last property that has excited both medical researchers looking for new therapies as well as people opposed to abortion or concerned about the potential threat of human cloning. Stem cells are not to be confused with the STEM curriculum movement advocating since 2001 for the integrated study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at every grade level to prepare our children for future jobs. Obviously, we will need more STEM graduates to develop more stem cell therapies.
Stem cells were first grown from human embryonic tissue in 1998 after decades of mouse embryo research. The initial source of these embryonic stem cells was fetal tissue from spontaneous miscarriages, unused fertilized embryos from in vivo fertility clinics, or elective abortions. The association with abortions prompted President Bush in 2001 to impose severe federal restrictions on fetal tissue research. In 2009 President Obama lifted those restrictions in response to persist pleas from many medical scientists. With the lifting of those federal restrictions several states have subsequently launched their own legal opposition to use of fetal tissue for research. A rich source of stem cells is umbilical cord blood collected from live babies at the time of delivery. Private cord blood banking (in case your child develops leukemia and needs some stem cells for bone marrow transplant at a later age) continues to be a thriving business. (Ad disclaimer: “No babies were harmed in the making of this tissue culture.”)
Stem cells can also be derived from adult or mature tissue like skin, fat, muscle, and even teeth (dental pulp). These adult or somatic stem cells are not pluri-potential; they can only grow into the same or very similar tissue as their source. They have less potential impact for new broad-based medical therapies. There are few stem cells in adult tissue, and they are more difficult to extract and grow in tissue culture. The repair of damaged knee cartilage with cartilage/bone stem cells injected by arthroscope is an example of a current stem cell therapy. A very recent article about injecting heart stem cells directly into heart muscle damaged by infarction suggests a new, potential therapy for patients with congestive heart failure following an MI.
So what’s the buzz all about? The FDA recently cracked down on several stem cell clinics suspected of “peddling unproven and dangerous” products to “vulnerable patients” for treatment of cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, stroke, and other neurological diseases. The patients are “vulnerable”, of course, because they have diseases for which current medicine has no cure. ( The Stem Cell of America website claims success with 4,000 patients at their Mexican treatment center; “cost of treatment depends on individual case evaluation”; dozens of positive research articles about stem cell treatments are listed… all in mice). I personally know parents who took their brain-damaged child to China at great expense on several occasions for injections of stem cells into their child’s spinal fluid with no success in regenerating nerve tissue. Stem cell therapy is administered intravenously, intranasally (for brain disease), or directly into a target organ. In another recent report, three elderly Florida women receiving treatment for deteriorating vision were blinded by injection of stem cells into their eyeballs.
So, many significant risks with few proven benefits so far. Where do we go from here? How can we evaluate this new therapy? The U.K. created the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence as part of their National Health Service. They leave out the “H” and call it “NICE” for short. Its purpose is to evaluate new medical technology, including new therapies, for both quality (benefits) and cost (risks and expense) as compared to current technology. Reviews of its work are positive.
We have no such evaluating body in the U.S. The FDA evaluates new drugs. The CDC evaluates new vaccines. No one agency has the responsibility to evaluate new medical technology, i.e. “Does the very expensive PET scan improve patient outcomes compared to MRI/CT scans?” Different professional societies have their views and publish their data. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was established in 1972 to advise Congress, but spent its time and energy on non-medical issues (acid rain, etc.) and was abolished in 1995 during Regan’s administration. The ACA (Obamacare) created a Center for Innovation within the Center of Medicare and Medicaid to support, evaluate, and promulgate new ways of providing medical services. Funding of its budget budget of a billion dollars a year for ten years was delayed. Its impact so far is negligible, and its fate is unknown.
Stem cell research may seem like small potatoes compared to climate change and potential nuclear war in the context of our currently anti-fact, unpredictable, and often inconsistent federal government, but the return on investment in stem cell therapy research could be quite big.
Lets make “American Science Great Again.”