I attended a once in a lifetime event sponsored by the Austin Heart Hospital and Texans for Stem Cell Research on the University of Texas campus Wednesday, October 27th. Six (edited – not five as I originally wrote.) researchers reported on cutting-edge stem cell research works-in-progress, right here in Texas. The presentations by the PhD’s, MD’s and PhD/MD’s were excellent and packed with information. I believe the most valuable result of Wednesday’s meeting may have been the opportunity for researchers of this caliber to hear one another speak, to share and debate ideas and report to each other on their work in progress. (And I learned a lot and earned 2 hours of Continuing Medical Education, thanks to the Austin Heart Hospital.)
One State legislator who has been an advocate for embryonic stem cell research or cloning and an economist warned that a ban on certain types of research might make Texas appear “unfriendly” to science and business. However, all of the scientists agreed that embryonic stem cell research is, to quote one young PhD from Houston, “not the way it’s going.” As explained by the speakers, embryonic stem cells are harvested from the inner cell mass of 5-10 day old embryos, can become another entire organism and, thus, are each a twin of the original embryo, and that they will still have the obstacle of donor cell immune rejection.
On the other hand, mesenchymal, bone marrow, cord blood and even adipose (fat) tissue were all noted as ethical, non-controversial, and easily accessed sources of stem cells that are being used right now in humans. One researcher told us that mesenchymal stem cells can be transplanted from one person to another and are “safer than a blood transfusion” due to their lack of immune antigens. Another cited the rich diversity of cord blood samples already available, frozen in public tissue banks, waiting to be matched to patients.
There was some disagreement among the researchers about the practical utility of induced pluripotent cells, embryonic-like stem cells from adult cells that are modified by genes inserted by viruses. Each scientist mentioned the discovery and study of at least one stem cell stimulating “factor” – proteins that influence stem cell recruitment and development in the site of the body where regeneration takes place. The numbers and breadth of treatments derived from adult stem cells that are already in phase 2 and later studies surprised me and caused murmurs all around the auditorium.
In answer to the last question of the day, the researchers agreed that the United States is most definitely not lagging behind other nations in stem cell research. One went so far as to say that any such perception is driven by politics and media sensationalism. Instead, scientists were all adamant in stating that our Nation is still the leader in innovation. The main concern expressed by the researchers was the need for the utmost care in protecting patients from bad outcomes due to this new field of study, combined with a sometimes onerous FDA bureaucratic approval process and limited funding.
Unfortunately, the announcer who closed the last few seconds on this Austin TV station news report tried to make a distinction between the ethics of killing embryos through abortion and the purposeful destruction of those that are “discarded” after in vitro fertilization in the lab. She says the cells are not from “aborted embryos,” which is technically correct: by the time mom knows she’s pregnant at 2 – 3 weeks gestation, the embryos are too old. Nevertheless, human embryonic stem cells from “discarded” in vitro embryos require the destruction of human embryos. I’m afraid her attempt to reassure viewers that no “abortion” is involved makes her look extremely uninformed or extremely political and willing to repeat some line she heard at the symposium.
I’m convinced that everytime one of the scientists said something good about adult stem cells or bad about embryonic stem cells, there was a “susuruuss” or whispered comments that went around the room.