Scientists convinced adult stem cell research will help cure various diseases
The remote possibility that the human body contains cells that can repair and regenerate damaged and diseased tissue has now become a virtual certainty.
Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, Dr Otmar Kloiber, a pathophysiologist, and secretary of the German Medical Association said scientific medicine is giving increased importance to adult stem cell research.
Acquiring adult stem cells, unlike embryonic ones (a highly controversial issue), can be procured without ethical problems, and have been proven to be instrumental for the repair of damaged tissue.
“Scientists now claim that besides embryonic stem cells, adult ones can also be used for research. These stem cells can be obtained in an ethical manner,” said Dr Kloiber. “Adult stem cell research is very advanced in Germany. Adult cells can be used to regenerate blood cells and human tissue such as those of the skin and the heart.
Dr Kloiber said this method is beneficial and necessary for cancer patients when parts of the blood and immune cell producing system are destroyed during therapy. “This is a big problem for these patients because if they do not have immune competent cells, and cannot produce blood cells they will die,” he said. “In the past a transplant of such cells was carried out. Today, with this new method, the patient’s own stem cells are used, and his/her own cells can produce these blood cells and immune competent cells again.”
Using this new method stem cells are collected from the blood before therapy is administered and re-introduced after therapy. This is done by substituting the damaged blood cells (and immunity) building system.
“This scientific method has been ethically and clinically established – its use is a realty and not wishful thinking like with embryonic stem cells,” said Dr Kloiber.
Adult stem cells can be extracted from human tissue. Other stem cells are collected from the umbilical cord and the placenta.
To cure a damaged heart after infarction, for example, once the stem cells are in the blood stream, scientists isolate them from surrounding cells.
This process yields a high concentration of stem cells which can then be injected back into the patient’s heart to substitute, what the researchers believe, damaged cells.
One of the possible sources for stem cells is also the human pre-implantation of embryos. However, this research involves the use of human embryos and raises various ethical questions.
A report on embryonic stem cell research was published last April by the European Commission. The document deals with ethical, legal, scientific and socio-economic issues raised by this kind of research. During a meeting of the EU’s 6th Framework Programme of Research and Development (FP6), the European Commission, Parliament and the Council agreed to a moratorium on research involving human embryonic stem cells.
All agreed to ban human cloning research although Member States where at loggerheads over the issue of human embryonic stem cell research at the time.
To prevent Member States holding up the adoption of the FP6, the institutions decided to rule out EU funding for research involving the use of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells. The moratorium will last until Member States draw up guidelines on the matter by the end of next month.
At present, only the UK allows the creation of human embryos for research purposes, but some Members States are in the process of modifying their legislation.
Stem cell research is one of the promising areas of biotechnology which offers the prospect of developing new methods to repair or replace tissues or cells damaged by injuries or diseases and to treat serious chronic diseases, like diabetes, Parkinson’s, chronic heart failure as well as stroke and spinal cord injuries.
“The problem is that last year’s FP6 on research allocates a certain amount of money to use on human embryonic stem cells. We (Germany), as well as other EU Member States who are against the use of embryos for stem cell research, are very much opposed to allocating money to a type of research which is considered a crime in some of the member countries,” said Dr Kloiber.
Germany, said Dr Kloiber, has an Embryo Protection Act. “The idea of this Act was that when male and female gametes merge, there is a human being growing who needs protection from the moment of conception,” he said. “Therefore it was understood that embryonic research which destroys the embryo was prohibited in Germany.”
However, around two years ago a discussion over whether embryos could be used for stem cell research purposes began. “Using embryos to produce stem cells is not permitted in Germany.”