COLUMBIA — An argument over things the human eye can't see has once again gone under the microscope, and the debate is playing out here in Columbia.
An executive order President Barack Obama signed on Monday overturns the Bush administration’s ban on federally funding embryonic stem cell research, a maneuver that Rob Duncan, vice chancellor for research at MU, said will have little immediate impact on MU and the research here since the university focuses on adult stem cell research.
Adult stem cells
According to the NIH, adult stem cells are taken from human tissue or organ(s), where there are very small numbers. Adult stem cells are thought to be in a specific area of a tissue for many years and do not divide until they are activated by disease or tissue injury. Adult tissues reported to contain stem cells include brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin and liver. Scientists are trying to learn to grow adult stem cells in cell cultures and manipulate them to generate specific cell types so they can be used to treat injury or disease.
Embryonic stem cells
According to the NIH, embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos, which is the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation , when it becomes a fetus. The embryonic stem cells used for research are not obtained from embryos carried in a woman’s body, however, but rather in a process called in-vitro fertilization This means the embryo has been formed by uniting the donated sperm and egg outside of the woman’s body in a laboratory. After four or five days a ball of cells form from the embryo called a blastocyst, which contains an inner cell mass of exactly 30 cells. The inner cell mass is separated into a separate dish where the cells are grown in cultures to remain undifferentiated or unspecified cells. If scientists can direct the differentiation of these cells types, they may be able to use the resulting cells to treat certain diseases at some point in the future by transplanting cells generating from this procedure. Such diseases that could be treated include: Parkinson's disease, diabetes, traumatic spinal cord injury, Purkinje cell degeneration, Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, heart disease and vision and hearing loss.
Source: National Institutes of Health
"At MU, we do very little work with embryonic stem cells, but the work we do on approved cell lines by the Bush administration is among the most important work we do to protect human health," Duncan said in a statement Monday. "We are a leader in the development of adult stem cells for activities such as organ printing for transplant surgery."
Duncan also said in the statement that because of advancements in stem cell techniques, embryonic stem cells may gradually become unnecessary for health care in the future.
"Techniques were developed in 2006 that can utilize an individual's adult stem cells for health care," Duncan said in the statement. "So I predict that the use of embryonic stem cells in health care will become much less necessary over time."
Former President George W. Bush allocated $250 million in August 2001 to fund research on “genetically diverse stem-cell lines” from embryos destroyed prior to his presidency, some of which are researched at MU, but barred federal funding on embryos thereafter.
While some saw Obama's executive order as an initiative to pursue medical research long overdue, others like Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the order was misdirected in its allocation of federal tax dollars.
Doerflinger said that he would rather see the funding go toward adult stem cell research instead of embryonic stem cell research.
“We have a president today who has not thought about this enough,” Doerflinger said in a televised speech Monday on C-SPAN. “It is now just as we stand at the edge of an entire age of regenerative medicine that everybody can support, that we are going to divert money away from these ethical and sound and promising treatments towards research that has failed and disappointed many times.”
According to the National Institutes of Health's Web site, adult stem cell research has been more successful than embryonic stem cell research. But the Web site also said embryonic stem cell research is in its early stages.
The NIH Web site states that experiments with embryonic stem cell research have only been viable since 1998, and the only federal funding allocated to public research has come from the Bush administration in August 2001. Those researchers have just begun to understand how to grow and use the cells.
So while the arguably under-researched and under-funded human embryonic stem cells “are thought to offer potential cures and therapies for many devastating diseases,” according to the NIH Web site, the federal agency acknowledges adult stem cells to be “currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases.”
Steve Paxton, associate coach and director of operations for Tiger Wheelchair Basketball at MU, has been in a wheelchair for 20 years with a spinal cord injury. He said that while he understands the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research, he does not believe that either adult or embryonic stem cell research should be overruled.
“As a person with a disability, I do understand that it’s a very controversial issue, and I think you need to be sensitive to that,” Paxton said. “At the same time, again as a person with a disability, I think we really need to be taking every avenue that we can to look for cures.”
Michael Roberts, curators’ professor of animal science at MU, disagrees with arguments that debunk embryonic stem cell research as a failed science.
“I think embryonic stem cell research still has enormous promise, it needs to be funded and it needs to be safe,” Roberts said. “I would respectfully disagree with those who say that we should just get away with using adult stem cells.”
“There are only a few cases where adult stem cells, that is stem cells derived from a particular type of tissue, have been successful. And the most well known one has been used for years and that is bone marrow transplants, which essentially is transferring adult stem cells,” Roberts said.
According to the NIH, adult blood forming stem cells from bone marrow have been used in transplants for more than 40 years. More advanced techniques of this same procedure can be currently used to treat leukemia, lymphoma and several inherited blood disorders.
Roberts spoke of a plausible future for stem cell research that does not require the use of embryos and, in a way, encapsulates the benefits of both stem cell procedures. His vision echoes that in Duncan's statement which said embryos may become "less necessary over time."
“I think a lot of this is a red herring for the moment, but in a few years time I think we’ll be creating stem cells from patients themselves in the laboratory, and we’ll be able to go back in and use those same cells on the patients,” Roberts said.
If this procedure were possible, the stem cells would act like adult stem cells by not being rejected by the patient's immune system, and they would mirror the embryonic stem cell's capability to be reprogrammed for a more precise tissue match.
“There are ways now of creating stem cell lines without using embryos. It can be done biochemically,” Roberts said. “My suspicion is that these cells will eventually be the ones used in therapy, and the need to use cells derived from embryos will decrease. I think this is where the future is going to lie.”