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Experts: Adult stem cell research should be priority

WASHINGTON (BP)–Promising results using adult stem cells in patients demonstrate that such research, and not destructive embryonic experiments, should receive priority in funding, promoters of the non-controversial work say.

Patients, researchers and a bioethics specialist joined in a news conference in Washington to testify to the effectiveness of adult and other non-embryonic stem cell research. Their promotion of such experiments came the same day two members of the House of Representatives announced the introduction of legislation to give priority to adult stem cell research.

Reps. Dan Lipinski, D.-Ill., and Randy Forbes, R.-Va., introduced the Patients First Act, H.R. 2807.

Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Research using embryonic stem cells is opposed by most pro-life advocates, because extracting such cells results in the destruction of an embryo. In addition, embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Adult stem cells, also referred to as non-embryonic stem cells, typically have been regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types. In recent years, however, research has shown some adult cells have the same flexibility as embryonic cells. Extracting such cells does not harm the donor either.

“Even the scientific community unfortunately has tended to ignore the potential of adult stem cells, especially in relation to patients,” said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, in the July 26 news conference.

“There are at least two dozen examples of adult stem cells showing this flexibility but without some of the problems associated with embryonic type stem cells, problems with tumor genesis or getting the right type of cell for treatment,” Prentice told reporters. “There are now thousands of patients whose health has improved, maybe not in all cases a cure, although in some it is.

“The bottom line is: If we’re considering patients first, it’s the adult stem cells that are really the most promising” now, he said.

“Pluripotent” stem cells have been found in amniotic fluid, placenta, testicular tissue, umbilical cord blood, nasal tissue and bone marrow, among other sources, Prentice said.

Research using non-embryonic stem cells has produced treatments for at least 73 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. There are about 1,400 clinical trials being conducted utilizing such cells, Prentice said.

Stephen Sprague, 58, of New York said at the news conference he was privileged to be “one of the very early, early examples of the power of adult stem cells in cord blood.”

He was diagnosed with leukemia 12 years ago, but no bone marrow match was found, apparently dooming him to an early death. Instead, he has been cured for 10 years as a result of a treatment using stem cells from cord blood.

“Ten years ago, nobody ever thought this would work on an adult, particularly a full-sized adult,” Sprague told reporters. “There is some mother and her now-10-year-old daughter walking the streets of New York who did what mothers didn’t do 10 years ago, and she donated her daughter’s cord blood to a public cord blood bank. They will never, ever know what they have done for me and for my family.”

Other successfully treated patients who appeared at the news conference were:

— Jaider Abbud, a Brazilian dental surgeon diagnosed with juvenile diabetes last year at the age of 26. He received an infusion of his own stem cells in a trial last year and is no longer taking insulin.

— Doug Rice, 61, who had congestive heart failure and was told in November 2005 he had three or four months to live without a mechanical heart. The resident of Washington state has improved dramatically since receiving an injection of stem cells from his blood in a January 2006 procedure in Thailand.

Also testifying to the success of adult stem cells were:

— Julio Voltarelli, a Brazilian researcher whose clinical trial using stem cells from blood resulted in 13 of 15 Type 1 diabetes patients being free of insulin use.

— Amit Patel, a Pittsburgh, Pa., cardiothoracic surgeon and adult cardiac stem cell researcher whose treatments with stem cells from bone marrow have resulted in patients “still doing well” four years later, in contrast to a control group receiving standard care that is not doing as well.

The Patients First Act is designed to advance stem cell research and human trials that show benefits in the near future, Lipinski and Forbes said in news releases. It also is to promote the development of “pluripotent” stem cell lines without destroying human embryos, they said.

“The issue of embryonic stem cell research has become divisive, and when there are cures and human lives at stake, divisiveness is not a luxury we have,” Forbes said in a written release. The legislation attempts “to devote our energies and our resources on the common goal shared by both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate -– curing and treating patients,” he said.

Prentice commended the House for approving July 18 an increase of $11 million in funds for the National Cord Blood Inventory, which collects cord blood units and makes them available for doctors searching for matches for patients.

The Senate is expected to attempt an override of President Bush’s June 20 veto of a bill seeking to weaken his policy that blocks federal funds from being used in stem cell research that destroys embryos. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Bush also vetoed last year, would provide funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. The president’s 2001 rule permits funds for embryonic research only on stem cell lines already in existence at the time of the announcement of the policy.