October 8, 2021 | Jerry Bergman

Stem Cell Update: Where Are the Cures?

Not the panacea they were once widely believed to be
because the body is more complex than formerly assumed

 

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Stem cells were long felt to be a panacea for treating many major diseases. As often happens, the once promising therapeutic approach has been very disappointing. As asked by New Scientist Magazine, “What happened to the promise of regenerative medicine 20 years ago?”[1] In the year 2000, stem cells

took hold of our collective imagination. We began to dream of their marvelous healing powers. The era of “regenerative medicine” seemed to be dawning. Soon, we would be using stem cells to repair and replace damaged hearts, joints, spinal cords, kidneys, livers, windpipes, eyes and more. You name it, stem cells would fix it.[2]

After over 20 years, despite the enormous

promise of stem cell research and the hard work of scientists worldwide, the dream of regenerative medicine remains just that – a dream. If this sounds surprising, perhaps it is because you have heard about stem cell clinics offering treatments directly to consumers for all kinds of conditions: AIDS, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and even covid-19. However, these are unproven therapies. Rigorous clinical trials haven’t generally established their effectiveness, and there are still safety concerns.[3]

In spite of this situation, “business is booming for those selling unproven stem cell treatments.” The global sales of what New Scientist calls stem-cell pseudoscience is estimated at $2.4 billion annually.[4]

Defining Stem Cells

The two main types of stem cells are Embryonic Stem Cells, cells taken from an embryo, and induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS or iPSCs), undifferentiated adult cells capable of differentiating into many different cell types. Stem cells are the factories that produce most kinds of cells. It is from these cells that all other specialized cells are generated. Under the proper conditions, either in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form new types of cells called daughter cells. No other body cell has the ability to generate new cell types.

The advantage of iPS stem cells is they do not depend on embryonic tissue taken from the bodies of aborted babies. As a result, scientists could avoid ethical debates that have hindered their use. They are still moving forward to develop stem-cell therapies for a wide variety of conditions. The main focus has been on Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, and heart disease.[5]

Although a long list of potential uses for stem cells exist, only one stem-cell therapy has been approved so far – namely, bone marrow transplantation. This well-recognized treatment uses blood stem cells to restore the body’s blood-making ability. Pioneered in the 1950s by E. Donnall Thomas and Joseph E. Murray (awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work), it has been routinely used since the 1980s to treat leukemia. The 1.5 million blood stem-cell transplant recipients have experienced significant improvements in both their longevity and quality of life. Bone marrow transplantation (actually a form of regenerative medicine) was developed long before the stem cell fever took hold.

Another potential success story involved one case. A 23-year-old man suffered from a fireworks explosion that shot burning fragments into his face, immediately blinding him in his left eye. Doctors found that his eyelid, cornea, and lens had been burnt beyond saving, ending his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. Thanks in part to an experimental stem-cell treatment using stem cells from his own healthy eye to repair his damaged cornea, the hope is that he may see normally again.[6]

One other stem cell success is the use of mesenchymal stromal cells to treat certain immune disorders including Crohn’s disease and graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). This therapy works not because the transplanted mesenchymal cells restore damaged tissues, but merely because the mesenchymal stromal cells release chemicals that can ameliorate the problem.

The Human Cell showing some of its basic parts (Wiki commons)

Why so little success has been achieved

Stem cell regenerative medicine, after hundreds of thousands of scientific studies exploring stem cells, cannot claim much success.[7] The reason is that in spite of claims of evolutionists that accumulation of mutations, gene duplication, and co-option of parts in a haphazard manner produce or improve a human body, the body is far more complex than naïve evolutionists suppose. This is “why cell therapy to bridge severed neurons has proved more difficult than expected,” namely because “repairing this seemingly simple circuitry has proved much more complicated than most people anticipated.”[8]

In short,

the human spinal cord [along with any other body part] is much more complicated than we would like it to be… Growing and transplanting cells is not enough — they have to survive and they have to integrate, and we are not good at getting them to do that yet.”[9]

Another problem is “some people experience spontaneous recovery from spinal-cord injury, and in a small trial it’s nearly impossible to separate true functional repair from happy coincidence.” I do not accept luck as an explanation. But I wonder, could the cases of ‘happy-coincidence’ be due to divine providence?

Fine-tuning, complexity, and organoids

The human body also has narrow tolerances and requires fine-tuning, rendering modified stem cells unable to affect the system in ways that render improvement or repair. ‘From simple to complex’ is the theme of evolutionary biology. The classic example of their misguided assumption is the cell. Once seen as a simple structure containing numerous amorphous blobs, it is now correctly understood as one of the most complex structures in the universe. Solving that complexity is a requirement for success in regenerative medicine. The attempt may, rather, lead to a sad realization that most of these therapies cannot ever be successful.

In an effort to be optimistic, Power and Rasko note the

fact that regenerative medicine hasn’t yet lived up to its promise doesn’t mean it never will. As the history of medicine shows, good things take time and effort….. stem cell research … has taught us a great deal about how the body works and how to treat disease.”[10]

Some success may come from other avenues. An example is organoids—cultured stem cells that can combine with several different cell types. These cell combinations can function as

miniature organs, such as mini-brains or hearts. Organoids provide us with a much better picture of what goes on in the human body than a regular two-dimensional cell culture.”[11]

Summary

Stem cells, so far, are not the panacea that were once envisioned by starry-eyed scientists. They have, though, effectively illustrated the enormous complexity of the cell and the design of the human body. Stem cell research has served an important role in unveiling some of that complexity, showing that the “hit-and-miss” assumption of Darwinian evolutionists is not plausible—the idea that damage to the genome through mutation could ever result in advancement.

The benefit of stem cell research to date has been that cytologists and geneticists have learned more about the finely-tuned engineering of the cell and the intelligent design of the body as a whole. Pursuing stem cell and organoid research will no doubt continue to reveal more evidence that evolution is powerless to explain the exceedingly complex reality that geneticists and cell biologists see in their work every day. Ethical scientists should deplore the use of human embryos in these endeavors.

The blueprint for a cell calls for engineering design of a high order (from the documentary Origin by Illustra Media)

References

[1] Power, Carl, and Rasko, John E.J. The stem cell revolution isn’t what you think it is. New Scientist, 29 September 2021.

[2] Power and Rasko, 2021.

[3] Power and Rasko, 2021.

[4] Power and Rasko, 2021.

[5] Hendricks, Melissa. Induced pluripotent stem cells: Not yet the perfect alternative. John Hopkins Medicine: Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, July 2010.

[6] Savage, Neil. Reversing blindness with stem cells. Nature, 29 September 2021.

[7] Power and Rasko, 2021.

[8] Gravitz, Lauren. Stem cells and spinal-cord injuries: An intricate issue. Nature, 29 September 2021.

[9] Gravitz, 2021.

[10] Power and Rasko, 2021.

[11] Power and Rasko, 2021.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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