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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 17 August 2005 Issue

Stem Cell Research

Stem cells and research involving stem cells has generated much controversy in recent months. What are stem cells, why is there controversy surrounding them, and what does using them in research mean for ending animal experiments? Stem cells are the body’s master cells. They can grow into virtually any of the body’s cell types. Stem cells are unlike any specific adult cell; however, they have the ability to form any adult cell. Stem cells can proliferate indefinitely in culture, so potentially they provide an unlimited source of clinically important adult cells, if scientists can direct their development in culture into bone, muscle, liver or blood cells. Therefore, stem cells are theoretically (and in some cases, actually) an effective source of transplantation material.

The reason they work is that during embryogenesis, humans develop from a single undifferentiated cell, called a totipotent stem cell. And therein lies the controversy. Stem cells from embryos are the beginning cells of a new human.

Normally when a couple wishes to use an in vitro fertilization clinic, the clinic will take multiple eggs and fertilize all of them. Typically about eight embryos will be formed. One or two will be implanted and the rest will be placed in the freezer should the first implantation fail. If the couple becomes pregnant on the first try, six or seven fertilized eggs could be left in the freezer with no chance of ever being placed into a woman’s uterus.

Many antiabortion groups take an issue with using stem cells derived from human embryos such as those obtained from in vitro fertilization clinics. However, there are other sources. Stem cells can be found in bone marrow, umbilical cords and other places. It appears that they can now be lab-grown.

The benefits of stem cells are myriad. Physicians can transplant stem cells yielded from these sources or human embryos into children suffering from leukemia, and with fewer problems in regard to matching antigens than with bone marrow transplants. Traditional leukemia therapies include chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplants. New treatments include stem cell transplants from the patient or a donor. Recent human studies showed that patients who receive stem cell transplants had a twenty-five percent survival advantage over those with the traditional modes. While it was initially thought that only children suffering from leukemia would benefit, it has recently been shown that adults suffering from leukemia can also be treated with umbilical cord-derived stem cells.

Children with sickle cell anemia, immunodeficiency syndromes and inherited enzyme deficiencies can also benefit from transplantation of stem cells garnered from umbilical cords and placentas.

Patients suffering from a broad range of cell-based diseases like juvenile onset diabetes mellitus and Parkinson's disease can also benefit. Replacing faulty cells with healthy ones offers hope for treatment and possibly cures. Likewise, injecting healthy cells to replace damaged or diseased cells could in theory, rejuvenate failing organs. Already people with autoimmune diseases – multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, juvenile arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and vasculitis/cryoglobulinemia – have been successfully treated using stem cell therapy. Around two-thirds stabilize or improve. Stem cell transplantation has been particularly successful in treatment of persistent systemic lupus erythematosus when combined with chemotherapy.

Using stem cells derived from human embryos is controversial but using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow is not. Regardless of what the US government decides regarding stem cells from embryos, research on stem cells from other sources should continue.

Instead of funding animal-modeled research, we should be funding research to identify the chemical and molecular pathways that allow stem cells to differentiate into other cells. We should be looking for effective ways to combine gene therapy and stem cell therapy. It goes without saying that animal model-based methodologies seem all the more archaic considering the progress scientists have made in the use of stem cells. These very exciting developments offer unlimited opportunities, which may extend into every field of medicine.

Stem cell therapy offers cures to diseases that today we are far from understanding. Research on stem cells will benefit humans and animals.

Return to Animals in Print 17 August 2005 Issue

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