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March 16, 2001 Issue
Local News

Research need not kill

Lawmakers told that adult stem cells work as good or better than embryo cells


By Julianne Nornberg
Catholic Herald - Madison

MADISON - No human life need be destroyed in the process of deriving stem cells to be used in research, Dr. David Prentice told legislators and other public officials at a Wisconsin Right to Life-sponsored presentation on stem cell research at the State Capitol.

Prentice is a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and a founding member of Do No Harm, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics.

Prentice said stem cells, which form the various tissues of the body, can be used for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. For example, if someone has a heart attack, stem cells can be used to replace the damaged or diseased cells.

"Unfortunately, the attention has been on embryonic stem cells," he said. By the time a human embryo is 5-7 days old, its inner cells, or stem cells, can generate all tissues of the human body. The ethical question, Prentice said, is that using embryonic stem cells requires destroying the embryo.

"At one cell we are human beings," said Prentice. "This is a human rights issue. When do we define a person? Should we take one group of humans and sacrifice them for the potential benefit of another group of humans?"

Our own adult bodies also have stem cells that can repair and generate tissue, he said. "Published literature shows that you can do all these things with adult stem cells, so there is no absolute need for embryonic stem cell research."

"Adult stem cells have an amazing capacity to grow and repair damage," said Prentice, pointing out that they can form all tissues such as bone, cartilage, muscle, fat, liver, brain, nerve, heart, blood cells, skin, cornea, retina, pancreas, lung, and spermatogonia.

"They already are being used clinically. Adult stem cells are used for cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, sickle cell anemia, and bone disease," he said.

Potentially, adult stem cells could be used to treat Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and spinal cord injury. In one experiment, researchers cured diabetes in mice, using the mice's own adult stem cells, he said.

Prentice said studies have also shown that adult stem cells injected into the blood stream can go where the damage is, while embryonic stem cells have been shown to develop tumors.

The day after Prentice's talk, a New York Times article, "Parkinson's research is set back by failure of fetal cell implants" (3/8) by Gina Kolata illustrated limitations of embryonic stem cell research based on a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

"In about 15% of patients, the cells apparently grew too well, churning out so much of a chemical that controls movement that the patients writhed and jerked uncontrollably," the article said. "The researchers say that while some patients have similar effects from taking too high a dose of their Parkinson's drug, in this case the drugs did not cause the symptoms and there is no way to remove or deactivate the transplanted cells."

In the last two years, which was about the same time as the discovery of embryonic stem cells, researchers started discovering the same possibilities in adult stem cells, he said.

"We're at the beginning of a biological revolution," Prentice said. "We'll see more, not less, of these ethical and scientific debates. It's important that everyone have an informed dialogue about this."

Susan Armacost, legislative director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said Prentice "did an outstanding job in educating lawmakers on the ethical problems using embryos and demonstrating that there are other sources to obtain stem cells. The message was that those are the avenues we should be exploring."

Armacost said one of the heartening outcomes of the presentation was that several legislators said they now understood why the use of embryonic stem cells must stop.

"We hope the culmination of this will be to ban the use of embryos for research purposes. Education has to take place before we move forward with anything," said Armacost, explaining that even legislators who were pro-life were struggling with this issue because they thought they were cutting off research possibilities. "And now they know there are alternatives."

"Dr. Prentice made a compelling case that research on embryos is not necessary to achieve medical advances in these areas," said John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. "He articulated the ethical problems in the use of embryos and he made an important contribution to improving the nature of the debate on this question.

"One of the things Dr. Prentice said was that this is an issue for all of society," Huebscher said. "Everyone has to be involved in making these value judgments. We are in a position where the whole society can be in on the discussion."

(The web site for Do No Harm, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics is: www.stemcellresearch.org)



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