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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Supporters of alternatives to embryonic stem cell research found a surprising ally recently when medical doctor Mehmet Oz, during an appearance on the “Oprah” television program, played down embryonic research and trumpeted an ethical method.
“The stem cell debate is dead, and I’ll tell you why,” he told Oprah, guest Michael J. Fox and a nationwide audience.
“Dr. Oz,” the director of the cardiovascular institute at Columbia University Medical Center, told Oprah and Fox that embryonic stem cell research is fraught with practical problems. Although he didn’t name the procedure, he said he favored — and he described in detail — an alternative that researchers refer to as induced pluripotent stem cell research (iPS), which he thinks will produce cures.
Neither embryonic stem cell research nor iPS research has produced any cures. Only iPS research, though, has support from both sides of the debate.
“The problem with embryonic stem cells is that embryonic stem cells come from embryos — like all of us were made from embryos — and those cells can become any cell in the body,” Oz said on the show, which was first broadcast March 31. “But it’s very hard to control them, and so they can become cancer.”
In induced pluripotent stem cell research, researchers take a person’s own skin cell and reprogram it into embryonic-like stem cells. Human iPS stem cells were first developed in 2007, and major advances have since been made. Embryos are never used in the process.
Significantly, Oz wasn’t making his argument from an ethical perspective but from a practical one. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease and was sitting beside Oz, was a major critic of President Bush’s stem cell policy, which prohibited federal funds being used on research that destroys embryos. Bush and other pro-lifers favored alternatives, such as the iPS method championed by Oz.
Fox, in fact, during his appearance on the show criticized the “eight years” where “no forward progress” was made. But Oz, without criticizing Fox, said Fox’s best hope for a cure was not in embryonic research.
“In the last year, we’ve made 10 years of advancement” [in iPS research], Oz said. “Think about that. We went places we never thought we would go.
“Here’s what the deal is,” he said, describing the iPS procedure to Fox, “I can take a little bit of your skin, take those cells, get them to go back in time so they’re like they were when you were first made, and then they will start to make that dopamine, and I think those cells, because they won’t be as prone to cancer — and because they’re your genes — will be the ones that are ultimately used to cure Parkinson’s.
“And no one can tell how fast we can do this,” Oz said, “but I’ve talked to a lot of experts in this field, and I think we’re single-digit years away from making a big impact in lives of Parkinson’s disease [patients] but also diabetics, heart attack victims.”
“Single digits away?” Oprah asked.
“Single-digit years,” Oz repeated. “So, in other words, it could be eight, nine years … but it’s going to be in our lifetime, and that’s exciting, I think, to all of us in medicine.”
One major form of stem cell research — adult stem cell research — was not discussed. Adult stem cells are found throughout the human body and pose no ethical concerns. Human trials using adult stem cells have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.