On May 4, 2016 the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology reported the first successful skin to eye transplant in humans. Researchers modified a piece of skin from the patient’s arm into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). The iPSCs were manipulated to become eye cells, and were transplanted into the patient’s eye resulting in improved vision for a patient with macular degeneration.
Do No Harm, the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, recently noted that non-embryonic stem cell alternatives account for a majority of grants awarded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) for stem cell research. “That MJFF is funding such research is noteworthy, because Michael J. Fox himself has been a leading public proponent of human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) since 1998,” they wrote.
In the early 2000s, embryonic stem cells were promoted for their supposed great potential in curing disease. States, including Massachusetts, legislated billions of dollars for research while ignoring significant scientific, economic, and ethical concerns. Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute (SCPI) described the problems. “To generate adult organ, tissues or cells, the embryonic stem cell must ‘fast forward’ the process of years of maturation in a matter of weeks in order to create financially-valuable products. The second fundamental point is the propensity of embryonic stem cells (ESCs) to form tumors called teratomas.”
Adult cells, also known as somatic or body cells, are a natural source of stem cells. Umbilical cord blood is especially rich in stem cells, as are the placenta and amniotic fluid. IPSCs can also be produced from a patient’s own cells, avoiding the potential problem of developing therapies that are incompatible with the immune system.
A giant leap for ethical medicine was a 2007 discovery by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. He found that adult cells can be reprogrammed to become embryonic-like cells. Called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), these cells had great therapeutic potential and eliminated the need to destroy human embryos for research.
Research scientist and SCPI president Theresa Deisher, Ph.D., explains the excitement of stem cell science. “Stem cells have the potential to be curative,” Deisher says. “They are cells that can remake themselves, can also differentiate becoming a functioning mature cell, and can replace cells that are damaged in your body. To treat disease, a patient’s own stem cells are used to induce regeneration and recovery. They’re safe. They work. They are affordable.”
Diseases and conditions already being helped through adult stem cell research and/or therapies include: cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, and multiple sclerosis; many types of cancer; auto-immune diseases such as: diabetes type 1, systemic lupus, rheumatoid and juvenile arthritis; acute heart damage, and chronic coronary artery disease. A recent experiment using microvesicles generated from bone marrow cells was effective in shrinking tumors in glioma, the most common type of malignant brain cancer tumor which has a poor survival rate.
“There’s a paradigm shift in medicine now, using cell therapy to treat diseases, and it’s just a very exciting time in medicine,” said Dr. Robin Smith. “Today there are 4,300 adult stem cell trials, and there are over 70 diseases where adult stem cell therapies are part of clinical care, while stem cells from human embryos have failed to create any significant cures or treatments.”
In an article for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, Gene Tarne wrote, “Scientific advances in stem cell research continue to make use of embryos outdated and unnecessary. Diabetes has long been one of the main diseases for which human embryonic stem cell (embryo-destroying) research, or hESCR, was claimed to hold the greatest promise of curing. In 2014, researchers published an article in Cell describing how they had, for the first time, successfully used hESCs to create insulin-producing beta cells that were also responsive to changes in glucose in their environment.” However, the researchers were also able to generate insulin-producing beta cells from iPSCs identical to those generated from hESCs, saying that embryonic stem cells are not needed.
“In 2007, Dr. Richard Burt led a groundbreaking study that used adult stem cells to reverse Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes in patients. In addition, Dr. Denise Faustman of Massachusetts General Hospital has had promising results in treating Type 1 diabetes without using stem cells at all,” said Tarne. “The treatment involves a vaccination made from an inexpensive generic drug that destroys the rogue cells responsible for attacking the insulin-producing cells found in the pancreas. Using this method, Faustman succeeded in reversing Type 1 diabetes in mice, and she has also completed a Phase 1 clinical trial in human patients.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Massachusetts Citizens for Life News.