‘Embryonic-Like’ Cell Discovery Could Affect Ethics Debate

Daily News Article   —   Posted on August 19, 2005

(by Patrick Goodenough, Aug. 19, 2005, CNSNews.com) – A reported breakthrough in stem cell research may lend new weight to the campaign against the use of human embryos in research, one of the most pressing ethical controversies facing governments in the U.S. and elsewhere.

American and British researchers say that they have found, in umbilical cord blood, a new type of cell — neither embryonic nor “adult” — which is more versatile than the latter while avoiding the ethical dilemmas surrounding the former.

And in a further development, the scientists have found a way to mass-produce the new cells, sidestepping the problem of limited supply of embryonic cells.

The cord-blood-derived-embryonic-like stem cells (CBEs) share many of the same characteristics of embryonic cells and one day might be used to treat injuries or diseases.

The researchers already have successfully turned the cells into human liver tissue.

Using microgravity technology developed by NASA to simulate the weightlessness of space, researchers at London’s Kingston University succeeded in cultivating colonies of CBEs, derived from blood taken from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord.

“CBEs are a viable human alternative from embryonic stem cells for stem cell research, without ethical constraint and with potential for clinical applications,” study leader Dr Colin McGuckin said in the medical journal Cell Proliferation.

“Adult” stem cells, derived from such sources as placentas or bone marrow, have been held up as an ethical alternative to the use of embryonic cells, which pro-lifers oppose because the early-stage human embryo is destroyed when the cells are harvested.

Aside from the ethics, embryonic cells have displayed a tendency to produce cancerous tumors called teratomas. There is also the “scientific hindrance” posed by difficulties in producing the large quantities needed.

But adult cells – which unlike embryonic ones are already being used on patients — also have some limitations, scientists say: restricted versatility and potential immune reaction problems.

McGuckin said the newly discovered CBEs, for the first time, “bring together the essential qualities of both” embryonic and adult cells.

The research, funded by the British government, was carried out in collaboration with the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston.

“Until now, experts have struggled to find a supply of cells in sufficient numbers that does not offend previous critics of stem cell research,” UTMB said in a statement. “The latest advance looks set to overcome such difficulties.”

In the U.S. and other parts of the world, cord blood banks offer a service — at a cost — of saving and preserving cord blood for parents in case the cells should be needed in the future to treat illnesses in the child or another family member.

The discovery of CBEs could spur on the process of setting up a worldwide stock of cells that could be used in future therapies.

“With a global birth rate of 100 million babies a year, there is a better chance of getting the right tissue type for the many patients out there waiting for stem cell therapy,” McGuckin said in a statement.

“There is also far less likelihood of such cells being rejected when they are transplanted into people with liver disease, for example.”

Four years after President Bush restricted the use of taxpayers’ dollars for human embryonic stem cell research, the issue is as contentious as ever.

A bill expanding federal funding for the work has passed the House, and is now before the Senate, where majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) late last month stunned Americans on both sides of the debate by expressing support for the measure.

The president has declared his intention to veto the bill, and the White House said on the day of Frist’s announcement that the position had not changed.

In an Aug. 8 Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today, 56 percent of respondents backed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research while 40 percent opposed it. An earlier Gallup poll, on May 26, went 60-33 in favor of federal funding.

Reprinted here with permission from CNS News.  Visit the website at www.cnsnews.com.