Martin Evans, last week awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, is rethinking his retirement plans. The discovery of embryonic stem cells in mice was groundbreaking, but creating "knock-out" mice to isolate and identify particular genes earned him and his colleagues the career-crowning prize. When the beaming "father" of stem cell research proclaims, "We will have the therapeutic medicine without the embryos. And it’s not a matter of if, but when," one wonders why he seems not to acknowledge that there are already existing stem cell cures and therapies for an impressive number of conditions, including sickle cell anaemia, and various cancers… without the embryos.
There is enormous potential for adult stem cell therapies. Earlier this month, the Michigan Catholic Conference launched a slick stem cell education campaign featuring a newly produced DVD and letters to hundreds of thousands of homes across the state. Other state Catholic Conferences are following Michigan's lead. By no means is this just a "Catholic thing". Pioneers in bio-tech industry and legislators from local districts up to Washington have joined the crusade. A new Federal bill, The Patient’s First Act of 2007, which single-mindedly promotes adult stem cell research with the intent to expedite the development and delivery of cures and therapies to patients — awaits review in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Recently, MercatorNet spoke with Dr Alan Moy, CEO of Cellular Engineering Technologies (CET), and Director of the recently formed John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute (JP2SRI), a not-for-profit, non-denominational organisation which educates the public about adult stem cell sources and promotes research by providing adult stem cells and bio-engineered tissues. Based out of Iowa City, the institute will become a centre of cooperative research where biotech industry, private organisations and academia can establish adult stem cell treatments. In short, it will be a center for research in an ethical environment.
MercatorNet: Dr Moy, what led you to step out of the safe world of government funded research at the University of Iowa and to add exponentially to your work load as a private-practice physician and CEO of an emerging bio-tech company, to found the JP2SRI?
Moy: Part was circumstance and the other was identified need for JP2SRI.
My company, CET, had developed the methods to isolate just about all of the major adult stem cells and stem cells from placenta and cord blood. These stem cells are approved for pre-clinical research and not for clinical use. Clinical research is outside the scope of CET. A company like CET is looking at short-term investments and clinical adult stem cell research requires a long-term horizon.
Adult stem cell research is not conducted by many scientists because scientists do not have access to adult stem cells because it requires significant resources (recruiting patients, collect tissues, storage, processing and growing stem cells). This is a daunting task which is a barrier for scientists. So CET provides that work so that scientists can work on adult stem cell research.
Presently JP2SRI works to advance adult stem cell research by providing select researchers with adult stem cells at no charge from CET. These scientists that we collaborate with do not perform embryonic stem cell research.
MercatorNet: Virtually everyone has heard of stem cells, but few are aware of the very basic distinction between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells sources…
Moy: Adult stem cells offer these advantages: no ethical controversy, none to minimal risk of immune rejection, and reduced cost and time to harvest and grow up an initial stem cell line from adult tissue than from embryonic sources. They have some potential disadvantages: restricted ability to become more diverse tissue cells, and -– although an advantage in terms of genetic stability, they have a restricted lifespan in culture. Stem cells derived from human embryos offer these advantages: they can be maintained in culture for a long time and they have wide diversity. But, they have their problems: genetic instability, rejection potential, ethical controversy, difficult to culture and expensive and laborious, and they form tumours.
MercatorNet: Autologous stem cell therapies have taken off like a rocket, producing results impacting a wide range of diseases. Cardiology has been notably affected by adult stem cell therapies -– surgeons are promising new, living heart valves for children with heart defects. A recent news item featured a story about a child with an otherwise hopeless blood disorder, infantile osteopetrosisa, treated successfully with T-cells from his father. Why the hype over embryonic stem cells? Will it ever lead to real cures?
Moy: It's a big leap for embryonic scientists to promise that embryonic stem cells will lead to cures. There are too many scientific, ethical and business hurdles that have to be overcome for embryonic stem cells to be considered a therapy that will be adopted by industry. You have to clone to overcome rejection and cloning has never been accomplished in humans or primates. In addition, you have to overcome to tumour formation.
The bottom line is that they are over-excited by a behaviour observed in a Petri dish, and several more steps have to be proven before embryonic stem cells can be considered promising.
Embryonic stem cells are not well designed for large scale production, unlike adult stem cells — so there are significant cost and manufacturing constraints. There are major ethical hurdles that prevent them from being adopted by the public. If you somehow could clone and eliminate the tumour risk, 70 per cent of the public is against cloning. This restricts the market for such companies to jump into such commercial activities. Finally, cloning is not a solution for treating a genetic disorder like juvenile diabetes.
MercatorNet: So why the focus on funding embryonic stem cell research?
Moy: Because the media and the most vocal scientists talk up embryonic stem cell research. This has nothing to do with reality.
MercatorNet: What are the biggest obstacles to adult stem cell research?
Moy: The biggest challenges are: access to tissue donation, such as cord blood, and financial support from philanthropic donors towards JP2SRI. You can't conduct clinical research without substantial financial support.
MercatorNet: Why does tissue donation remain an obstacle? Don’t we have public blood and tissue banks?
Having banks is only part of the solution. There is still insufficient tissue that is donated to such banks. The bigger need is processing the tissue and purifying and growing up adult stem cells. Adult stem cells represent a very small fraction of cells within an organ –- fewer than one per cent. It's essentially like finding a needle in a haystack. The amount that you isolate is too small for pre-clinical and clinical research applications, and thus processes must be developed to grow those stem cells for researchers to conduct experiments. Once you increase the number of stem cells, you don't know whether they behave like the original stem cells.
MercatorNet: Why do we need to privately fund adult stem cell research. Doesn’t the government fund it anyway?
Moy: The government funds research to an extent, but the amount of money devoted towards adult stem cell research as a percent of the nation's research budget is quite low. Also, there are few stem cell scientists in the US. So many states are creating their own stem cell initiatives, which are supporting both adult and embryonic -– with some tilting more to embryonic. This creates major problems in which secular institutes are being supported with public tax-paying dollars to support bio-medical research that is unethical. Further, many private foundations are now supporting embryonic stem cell research. So there is a need for a pro-life counter.
MercatorNet: Your specialty is pulmonary medicine -– have your experiences as a physician played a part in the founding of the Institute?
Moy: I care for many patients on a day to day basis with diseases that theoretically could be treated with stem cells that are kept in a freezer in my lab. It's hard for me to sit on these stem cells and not try to advance these treatments.
Monica Rafie is a Chicago-area mother of four children, one born with complex heart defects, and the founder of an outreach to parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis.