December 17, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Who Wants Embryonic Stem Cells?

Amazing treatments continue to spring forth from adult stem cells – the stem cells with no ethical qualms attached.  With adult stem cells easy to obtain doing so much good, why would anyone want embryonic stem cells (the stem cells with ethical qualms attached), when no usable treatments have yet been found?
Here are some recent success stories with adult stem cells:

  1. Nature presented evidence that a single adult stem cell in mice can grow a whole prostate gland.1 
  2. Another article this week in Medical News Today reported that esophageal stem cells in mice can grow into transplantable tissue.  Researchers at Penn State said, “The ultimate goal is to identify esophageal stem cells in a patient, grow the patient’s own stem cells, and inject them locally to replace diseased tissue with normal lining.”
  3. The New York Times reported that a patient received a transplanted windpipe.  The doctors were able to avoid tissue rejection by applying stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow.
  4. Science Daily reported that a single adult stem cell can self-renew and repair tissue in a live mammal.
  5. The cure for heart disease may be circulating in your blood.  Science Daily reported in October that “New research from the University of Bristol brings stem cell therapies for heart disease one step closer.  The findings reveal that our bodies’ ability to respond to an internal ‘mayday’ signal may hold the key to success for long-awaited regenerative medicine.”  If they can just enhance the response of stem cells that are already circulating in the blood, they can attract the body’s in-house repair mechanisms to damaged sites.
        This is a case of applied intelligent design: “The team have [sic] made fascinating discoveries about our DIY repair systems and have translated them into practical use.  They’ve intelligently employed the body’s own strategies to develop a method that may take us a step closer to truly effective stem cell therapies for heart patients.”
  6. In a paper in Cell,2 two stem cell specialists reviewed findings that hematopoetic stem cells maintain two populations that reproduce differently.  This presents “evidence that cells may transition between the two kinetic states, establishing one subpopulation that is ready to proliferate and another that is a deeply quiescent reserve.”  This means that adult stem cells can be available throughout life for repair of tissues – and harvesting by medical researchers – striking “the balance needed for ongoing maintenance and a durable reserve providing long-term reconstitution.”
  7. (submitted by a reader)  Popular Mechanics reported an amazing lifesaving technology that could save soldiers on the battlefront.  “New research from DARPA could open the door to on-demand blood-cell manufacturing on battlefields and in hospitals,” it said.  “All medics need is a machine that uses a nanofiber that mimics bone marrow to turn a handful of stem cells into gallons of blood.”  This could someday render blood banks and Red Cross Blood Drives obsolete while providing safe, fresher blood to the injured.
  8. Science Daily last month summarized new advances in “using adult, embryonic stem cells for tissue regeneration.”  The only advances mentioned in the article, however, were from adult stem cells and “induced pluripotent stem cells” (see 11/05/2008), derived from adult somatic cells, that behave “like” embryonic stem cells without the need to create and destroy embryos.  The article also mentioned “progress” with “derivatives” of human embryonic stem cells, like pancreatic islet cells, that survived in mice (but didn’t help the mice, because they produced human insulin).  Successful treatments from adult stem cells, though, are many and varied: “Adult stem cells regenerate epithelia, brain tissue, muscle, blood and bone.  They have also been found in other tissues that normally scar after injury, such as myocardium, spinal cord and retina tissues.”

The embryonic stem cell research community, by contrast, still has nothing to show and is plagued with scandals.  Nature News reported that California’s governor Schwarzeneggar is outraged at the head of CIRM, the embryonic stem cell institute approved by voters (04/30/2008, bullet 3).  “The board of California’s state stem-cell agency has voted to pay its chairman a salary, even as the state plunges deeper into financial crisis.”  He’s asking for a half-million salary when the state is facing a “financial Armageddon” with a $15 billion budget deficit.
    Nature News also reported that the Vatican has reiterated its opposition to the use of human embryos for research, whether from aborted fetuses or human cloning; use of adult stem cells, though, is morally acceptable, the Vatican said.
    Science magazine,1 however, expressed the common position of many scientists who want embryonic stem cell freedom, ethics or not.  Constance Holden wrote,

U.S. researchers are eagerly anticipating the moment that President-elect Barack Obama takes office and sweeps away the Bush Administration’s restrictions on federal funding for research with human embryonic stem (ES) cells.  Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are making no secret of their glee.  “I think everybody here is incredibly excited about the new Administration,” says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force.

Researchers used to finding ways to circumvent the Bush restrictions will now have unfettered freedom to breed human stem cells (short of cloning humans for research), once Obama fulfills his promise to remove the restrictions by executive order as one of his first acts as President.  Scientists seem to maintain their lust for ES cells even though the momentum is with adult stem cell research, where nearly-miraculous results are becoming the norm.  According to Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington, D.C., “the field [of embryonic stem cell research] has an awfully long way to go.”


1.  Leong, Wang, Johnson and Gao, “Generation of a prostate from a single adult stem cell,” Nature 456, 804-808 (11 December 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07427.
2.  Raaijmakers and Scadden, “Divided within: Heterogeneity within Adult Stem Cell Pools,” Cell, Volume 135, Issue 6, 12 December 2008, Pages 1006-1008.
3.  Constance Holden, “Obama Transition: A Fresh Start for Embryonic Stem Cells,” Science 12 December 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5908, p. 1619, DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5908.1619.

Solomon said, “For whoever finds me [wisdom] finds life and receives favor from the LORD.  But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:35-36).  In context, he had just been speaking of God’s wisdom and delight in creation.

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