As another fight looms over presidential policy on embryonic stem cells, here’s what the latest news shows about the efficacy of adult stem cells.
Controlling Congestive Heart Failure (Tufts University). Researchers at Tufts are testing injections of adult stem cells in dogs for the control of congestive heart failure. “Stem cell studies of the heart-valve disease in dogs could benefit humans, too,” the subtitle says. How would it work? “Injecting stem cells into a dog’s bloodstream should allow them to travel to the heart, where they theoretically could promote regeneration of damaged valves.” That these are not embryonic stem cells is clear from a paper in the journal Stem Cells referred to in the press release: “Stem cells evaluated in these studies included mesenchymal stem-stromal cells (MSC, 17/19 trials), olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC, 1 trial), or neural lineage cells derived from bone marrow MSC (1 trial), and 16/19 studies were performed in dogs.”
Stem Cells Could Restore Vision After Eye Disease (Live Science). This study uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which are adult cells coaxed back into a stem-like state without the need for harvesting embryos. “A new technique using stem cells can restore vision in mice that have end-stage eye disease, a condition that is thought to bring irreversible vision loss,” reporter Stephanie Bucklin writes. The iPSCs grow retinal tissue that is transplanted into the eye. Although the test results from mouse experiments are preliminary, the initial results at RIKEN are “very promising” for human treatments eventually. A related story in Medical Xpress says, “Stem cell therapy reverses blindness in animals with end-stage retinal degeneration.”
Researchers use stem cells to regenerate the external layer of a human heart (Penn State). Using heart progenitor stem cells, researchers achieved successes that “bring them one step closer to regenerating an entire heart wall” using adult stem cells. One team member said, “We are making progress on that inner layer, which will allow us to regenerate an entire heart wall that can be used in tissue engineering for cardiac therapy.”
Rebuilding the Salivary Gland After Radiation (UC San Francisco). Radiation treatments for head and neck cancers often lead to salivary gland damage. Researchers at UCSF are following the salivary stem cells in mice with fluorescent markers to see how they regenerate gland tissue by sending signals between nerves and tissue. Humans have salivary stem cells, but the signaling is disrupted after radiation damage. If they can understand the signaling in mice, it may have application to humans. One scientist “hopes that their research will one day enable the development of stem cell therapies for gland regeneration in human patients,” by calling their own salivary stem cells back into action.
Embryos and Ethics
Given the successes noted above, why do some labs and their institutions still clamor for embryonic stem cells? (See yesterday’s post.) In some cases labs work with mice, which is ethically acceptable given one’s view of animal rights, but animal tests portend ethical issues if applied to humans.
Scientists reprogram embryonic stem cells to expand their potential (UC Berkeley). These researchers are trying to coax embryonic stem cells to have the “totipotent” properties of a zygote. While mentioning induced pluripotent stem cells as an alternative to embryonic cells, the article makes no mention of ethics. But on a side issue, the article does debunk another “junk DNA” myth that retrotransposons are useless:
Long regarded as “junk DNA,” retrotransposons are pieces of ancient foreign DNA that make up a large fraction of the mammalian genome. For decades, biologists assumed that these retrotransposons serve no purpose during normal development, but [Lin] He’s findings suggest they may be closely tied to the decision-making of early embryos.
“An important open question is whether these retrotransposons are real drivers of developmental decision making,” said Todd MacFanlan, a co-author of the current study….
Baby Farms of the Future? Docs Warn of Ethical Issues from New Tech (Live Science). Here’s a case where both iPSCs and embryonic stem cells could be used for evil. What if stem cells are used to make sperm cells and egg cells? What if they are united to become live human embryos? Could governments use these to build baby farms or armies of clones? Rachael Rattner shows that “in vitro gametogenesis” may be a new worry on the horizon. And since skin cells that drop off your body could be coaxed into iPSCs and used to make gametes, you could become a parent without your knowledge.
Ethics Has Consequences
We end with contrasting issues the can result from policy about abortion.
Armenia raises alarm as abortions of girls skew population (Medical Xpress). As with China after its one-child policy led many couples to abort girls, Armenia faces a gender crisis from sex-selective abortions rising in that region. Did anyone see this coming? “The majority-Christian Caucasus country of some three million has the third highest rate of abortions of female foetuses in the world, a figure that rose sharply after the breakup of the Soviet Union.” That must mean Christian-in-name-only, because Jesus Christ would certainly not approve such a practice. The Soviet Empire has its dirty hands on this problem: “Abortion is still the primary means of family planning in Armenia, as it was in the Soviet era, and it is available free of charge on the state health service.”
A year on, mothers of Brazil’s Zika babies struggle (Medical Xpress). The flip side of abortion policy is caring for the mothers who carry their babies to term. Brazil has a new kind of crises: a flood of mothers having to care for babies with microcephaly, a brain handicap resulting from mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus. Many affected mothers have inadequate access to health care, and no knowledge of how to care for special needs babies who may never learn to speak and typically have multiple health problems, including blindness. On top of that, the culture in that country puts social stigmas on having a sick baby. “I have had to put my whole life on hold and live for the baby,” a mother named Brenda complains. “But as far as the government is concerned, you have to be extremely poor in order to receive a subsidy.”
That last story is not substantially different from any other kind of situation involving the handicapped. The writer of the article assumes that government is the answer. Government can help, but there are many other relief organizations that can and do offer assistance to needy families. Here is a new need arising from a new virus that provides an opportunity for religious care organizations to step up and help, just like they do for other disasters. Some pregnant women were encouraged by governments and NGOs to test for Zika infection in order to decide whether to abort.
Abortion is never the answer for those who value human life. The only policy to avoid the nightmare scenarios of baby farms, skewed gender populations and sales of baby body parts (see yesterday’s entry) is to view all human life as exceptional and worthy of protection. That said, we cannot just walk away from needy mothers who did choose life. Religious support organizations already do fantastic services for medical missions, wheelchairs for the world and other relief work. It would be good to see them prove to the Zika mothers that God-fearing pro-lifers are their best friends.