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Non-embryonic stem cells: Healing for broken bodies

Updated Sept. 11, 2004

WASHINGTON (BP)–Susan Fajt and Laura Dominguez have experienced the miraculously restorative power of stem cells, and no embryos had to be destroyed for them to benefit.

Fajt and Dominguez, who were told they would never walk again after debilitating automobile accidents, are beginning to do just that after undergoing transplant surgery using their own stem cells. The success of this pioneering procedure on these two young Texas women has added their names to a growing list of patients being successfully treated by the cells at the center of a national debate.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that produce other cells and tissues. Their discovery has raised hopes for treating a variety of afflictions. But, controversy surrounds how stem cells are obtained.

Embryonic stem cell research results in the killing of a human embryo. Adult stem cell research extracts cells from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and other non-embryonic sources without harm to the donor.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research claim that this line of study has the most potential for creating cures, but that is not evident in the priorities of the multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry, which has invested many times more in adult stem cell research. Also, embryonic stem cell research has experienced multiple failures, including the worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms in one human test group and a tendency to produce tumors in laboratory animals.

Adult stem cell research, meanwhile, has already produced more than 40 treatments, including the repair of damaged livers and remedies for heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries. Recent research promises a cure for arthritis.

Yet, some continue to lobby for Bush to drop his prohibition on federal funding of destructive embryonic stem cell experimentation. His order did not prohibit privately funded embryonic experimentation or federal funding of non-embryonic stem cell research.

Susan Fajt, from Austin, Texas, and Laura Dominguez, from San Antonio, Texas, didn’t need the president’s pro-life policy to be rescinded to learn firsthand the power of stem cells. Fajt was 24, Dominguez 16 when their spinal cords were severely damaged in separate car wrecks in 2001. Those accidents left Fajt paralyzed in her lower body and Dominguez paralyzed from the neck down.

Their searches for treatment led them to Portugal, where Carlos Lima performed surgery on them. For each of them, he transplanted stem cells from the olfactory tissue between the nose and brain to the location of the injury in the spinal cord. When Dominguez had the surgery months before Fajt, she was only the 10th person in the world to undergo the procedure.

Now, though both continue to use wheelchairs, they can walk with braces. It requires 30 minutes, but Dominguez can walk a quarter of a mile.

When Fajt was injured, doctors told her she “would never walk, swim, … take a bath by myself, and I’m doing all of those,” she said June 24, only a year and a week after the surgery that lasted more than 10 hours.

Both testified to the success of adult stem cell treatment at a Capitol Hill news conference. Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., hosted the young women and reporters in his office, and he pointed to another evidence of the promise of non-embryonic stem cell research — private funding.

The vast amount of private funding of stem cell research is going into adult stem cells, “because that’s where the results are,” Brownback said. “There’s not a controversy associated with it, and the results are coming” from that area, he said.

Another member of Congress recently said the funding practices of some embryonic stem cell advocates reveal a hidden agenda.

Some groups “are engaged in what I believe is deceptive communications on this issue,” Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla., said in a June 15 floor speech. He cited the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a leading campaigner to change Bush’s restrictions. Though JDRF says embryonic research is the most promising, it spent only $3 million in research on embryonic stem cells and $15 million on adult stem cell research, Weldon said.

“Why is [JDRF] saying that embryo stem cell research has the most potential, but they are spending [five] times as much money on adult stem cell research?” asked Weldon, a physician. “The truth is we have a multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry in America today, and they are spending nothing on this research. The advocates for this research are clamoring to get the American taxpayer to pay for it.”

American taxpayers are funding research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources and even for experiments using stem cells from embryos where “the life-and-death decision has already been made,” as Bush described it when he issued his 2001 order. That decision, which halted funding of any more destructive research, has resulted in 19 colonies of embryonic stem cells for the use of researchers.

The federal government announced July 15 it would open a “national bank” to help grow these colonies, according to The Associated Press. That announcement did nothing to appease those who want federal funds to support research that would require the killing of more embryos.

A “pattern of facts” becomes apparent in examining the campaign to fund embryonic stem cell research, said Eric Cohen, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

“Embryonic stem cell research is promising but so far purely speculative,” Cohen wrote May 25 on National Review Online; “the federal government in no way limits such research in the private sector; supporters of the research believe they can obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding in the next few years, as the creation of new stem cell institutes at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin demonstrates; and yet, despite the ethical objections of a very substantial portion of the public, stem cell advocates insist that Congress should compel every American to support the research with tax dollars, and to make that happen they inflate the promise and distort the facts surrounding the research.”