Embryonic stem cell funding meeting the needs of researchers

BY TONI MEYER, senior research analyst for the New Jersey Family Policy Council, Parsippany.

As state officials prepare to make decisions by year's end about who should receive the government's $5 million in grant money for stem cell research in New Jersey, newspaper articles have abounded on the subject and legislators, political figures and researchers have weighed in on the issue. Unfortunately, many have blurred the distinction that exists between the successful uses of adult stem cells in curing humans versus the so-called "promising" research with embryonic stem cells in lab animals. Dr. David Prentice of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at the Georgetown University Medical Center made that distinction very clear. He cited the case of a South Korean woman who had been paralyzed for 20 years but is now walking again, with braces, since being treated with stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. "In contrast, after 24 years of research with embryonic stem cells, researchers are just now only treating rats with brand-new injuries."

By blurring this distinction, the public has been led to believe that both types of research are necessary to find cures for dreaded diseases and disabilities. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jon S. Corzine said that limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was "inadequate to meet the needs of researchers." "It's bad science and it's bad medicine and it won't work," he said.

Little, if any, basis is found for the claim that funding embryonic stem cell research, which destroys human embryos, is even necessary when one considers the latest breakthroughs with adult/non-embryonic stem cells. Month after month, researchers are proving that adult stem cells, and stem cells found in umbilical cord blood and placenta, are suitable for, and showing the most promise for, use in developing all the cures we hope for.

A commonly repeated claim to support embryonic research was that adult stem cells were not as flexible as embryonic cells, only forming the tissue from which they originated. This claim is being proven false in a growing list of studies since the mid-1990s that show non-embryonic stem cells are just as flexible. Within the last four years, researchers from around the world have demonstrated that adult stem cells from bone marrow, blood, amniotic fluid, placenta, umbilical cord blood and nasal tissue have remarkable plasticity, yet without the problems of tumors seen with embryonic stem cells.

In August, University of Pittsburgh researchers demonstrated that they can generate any cell from amniotic epithelial cells found in human placenta. This could be used to produce new liver cells to treat liver failure, new pancreatic islet cells to cure diabetes or new neurons to treat Parkinson's disease. In May and June, several research groups showed they could get any cell from bone marrow.