Though we usually focus on abortion, today I’m writing about the Washington Post’s embryonic stem cell research article. Last September, Timothy Atchison received 2 million cells (a small amount) developed from human embryonic stem cells in the effort to reverse his paralysis. He damaged the oligodendrocytes (they insulate the nerves) around his T7 vertebra. They hope that the “stem cells injected into damaged area might develop into oligodendrocytes that could once again sheathe exposed nerves with myelin [emphasis added].”
Though this quote is from the Washington Post, the lack of certainty shown reflects the confidence that this treatment will work without complications. Though I honestly do hope that Timothy recovers function of his legs, I am more concerned about his risk of tumors. This is the first therapy applied to humans after over 25 years of research into creating just this type of cell from mice embryos and ESC treatments for mice are infamous for causing tumors.
I believe that much of the research for this treatment started with the Nistor study (2004) “Human Embryonic Stem Cells Differentiate into Oligodendrocytes in High Purity and Myelinate After Spinal Cord Transplantation.” This study tested the development myelination of Oligodendrocytes in mice after transplants, in effect exactly what Timothy is receiving. Notice that in the title, they pride themselves on their “high purity” rate. In stem cell research, purity is getting all of the stem cells to become what you want them to be.
“Within 1 week, cells with a characteristic oligodendroglial morphology were
evident (Fig. 3a–f), that labeled with GalC (Fig. 3g,h), a marker of oligodendroglia. Quantiﬁcation of immunostained cultures indicated that 95% +/- 4% of cells labeled
with the oligodendroglial marker GalC (Fig. 4a), 95% +/- 2% of cells labeled with
the oligodendroglial marker RIP (Fig. 4b), and 85% +/- 5% of cells labeled with the oligodendroglial marker 04 (Fig. 4c).”
95% purity sounds pretty good. If it were a grade, it would be an A. However, this indicates that 5% of the cells did not become what was desired. What do these extra cells become? Teratomas, a very nasty sort of tumor.
One Israeli child with a degenerative neural condition received injections of fetal neural stem cells in a Russian hospital in an effort to save or improve his life. He was nine. Over the course of four years, he received three transplants, but they did nothing to help him. In 2005, he began to complain of headaches. After receiving an MRI, it was discovered that he had several tumors growing in his brain and spinal column. At fourteen, the tumor in his spinal column was removed and was found to contain both XY and XX DNA. In otherwords, one of the fetuses that “donated” the stem cells was a girl.
Though the type of stem cell in that case was different, the risk is much the same. If tumors still grow in Embryonic Stem Cell petri dishes, what’s to prevent them from growing in his spine?
Those are my issues with the matter before we even involve the ethics of ending one life to benefit another. Yes, the embryos from which the cells were gathered were probably going to sit in a freezer their entire life, but does that devalue them? Should they be killed when other alternatives are readily available?
I’m not even talking about adult stem cells, which are pretty cool. There are over 70 adult stem cell treatments (they’ve cured sickle-cell, though it’s hard to find a match). No, Induced Pluripotent Stem cells work almost exactly like embryonic stem cells, without the ethical qualms. Created by adding one gene to a skin cell, Induced Pluripotent Stem cells behave the same way as Embryonic Stem Cells do. They have the same disposition to turn into tumors as embryonic stem cells, but at least they do not end a life.
What are your thoughts on Embryonic Stem Cell research? Does the potential out way the risks and loss of life?
P.S. Only slightly related, but still interesting. Humans have been cloned and we somehow didn’t hear about it. Much like Dolly the sheep, Dr. Wood, cloned himself using his skin cells and an unfertilized human egg. He developed five of these embryos, each living for five days, before he destroyed them to confirm that they were indeed clones. Apparently, this is not the first human cloning, which occurred in 2001 and the embryos lived two days. I always figured this would be bigger news.