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Successes from non-embryonic stem cell research mount

WASHINGTON (BP)–A report from South Korea of a paraplegic woman walking six weeks after undergoing a transplant with stem cells from umbilical cord blood is only part of a mounting list of successful therapies that are not dependent on destroying embryos.

On the same day Hwang Mi-Soon, 37, took steps for reporters in Seoul with the aid of a walker, American and European studies were published that showed umbilical cord blood –- and the stem cells it includes -– could save the lives of many adults with leukemia who cannot find bone marrow donors, The New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, recent reports have provided evidence in human trials of a cure for urinary incontinence using a patient’s own stem cells, as well as results in experimental research with lab animals that gave hope adult stem cells might treat heart damage, cancer and eye disease.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, building hope of treatments for numerous afflictions. They may be found in such non-embryonic sources as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, fat and placentas. The procurement of stem cells from such sources does not harm the donor.

Extracting stem cells from a human embryo is a different matter. It results in the destruction of the embryo, which is normally about a week old.

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.

Research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources, meanwhile, has produced more than 40 treatments -– and the positive results keep coming in.

“These successes point to the promise of adult stem cells for therapeutic ends,” said C. Ben Mitchell, bioethics consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Congress should superfund adult stem cell research, making embryonic stem cell research unattractive to scientists.”

Increases in funding for such research should occur not just because the results are more promising but because of its “ethically superior” nature, Mitchell said.

“Every effort should be made to exploit these sources of stem cells,” he said. “They are uncontroversial morally, but killing embryos for their stem cells cannot be justified ethically.

“We favor the advancement of science and the development of therapies, but subjecting human embryos to vivisection is not an advance, but a digression of science into biotechnological cannibalism,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.

The federal government provided more than $190 million in funding for non-embryonic stem cell research in 2003, according to the White House. Meanwhile, $24.8 million was set aside the same year for embryonic stem cell research under President Bush’s policy, which permits funds only for stem cell lines in existence before he instituted the restriction in 2001.

While the federal government withholds funds for research that destroys embryos, some states are in a race to fund the practice. California’s voters approved in November a proposition that legalizes and underwrites embryonic stem cell research, as well as therapeutic cloning, with up to $3 billion in state bonds over 10 years. Advocates for embryo-destructive research in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Illinois are promoting funding plans to keep their states from falling too far behind California.

They have no one to exhibit as a benefactor of research using embryonic stem cells, however. Advocates of non-destructive research have no such handicap. Lupus, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, Crohn’s disease and diabetes are among the ailments that have been successfully treated with non-embryonic stem cells.

Hwang Mi-Soon is one of the most recent witnesses to the power of stem cells that do no require the demise of another human being. South Korean researchers introduced her and the remarkable results Nov. 25, describing hers as the first published case of a person with a spinal cord injury to be successfully treated with stem cells from umbilical cord blood, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported.

“We have glimpsed at a silver lining over the horizon,” said Song Chang-Hoon, a professor at Chosun University’s medical school and a member of the research team, AFP reported. “We were all surprised at the fast improvements in the patient.”

The researchers transplanted stem cells from umbilical cord blood into the damaged part of Hwang’s spinal cord Oct. 12, according to The Korea Times. Within three weeks, she began to take steps with the aid of a walker, Song told reporters. Hwang had not walked since her legs were paralyzed in an accident 19 years before.

At the news conference, she got up from her wheelchair and shuffled a few paces with tears in her eyes, AFP reported. “This is already a miracle for me,” she said, according to AFP. “I never dreamed of getting to my feet again.”

The researchers acknowledged more research and verification is needed.

The results were similar, however, to those revealed in July in Washington, D.C., for two young American women. Susan Fajt, from Austin, Texas, and Laura Dominguez, from San Antonio, began walking with braces after receiving transplants with their own stem cells from pioneering Portuguese surgeon Carlos Lima. He transplanted stem cells from the olfactory tissue between the nose and brain to the location of the injuries to their spinal cords. Fajt was paralyzed in her lower body and Dominguez from the neck down from separate car wrecks in 2001.

In another account of a cure for paralysis, Brazilian doctors reported they used stem cells from a paralyzed woman’s bone marrow to restore quickly her ability to walk and talk, according to a Nov. 19 AFP article.

Maria da Graca Pomeceno, 54, suffered a brain hemorrhage that left her paralyzed on one side of her body, but doctors in Rio De Janeiro transplanted the stem cells five days afterward. While Han Fernando Dohmann warned tests were needed on other patients, the director of Rio De Janeiro’s Pro-Cardiaco Hospital said, according to AFP, “I would say that we have entered a new era in treating this condition.”