Second Wind, Courtesy of Adult Stem Cells
To those who follow the developments of stem-cell research, it becomes increasingly clear that adult cells hold far more therapeutic value than embryonic stem cells (see Colley, 2008). In recent months, scientists changed adult stem cells into “iPS,” or pluripotent cells that carry the same possibilities for regenerative medicine as do embryonic stem cells (see Vogel and Holden, 2007), and even “transformed one type of fully developed adult cell directly into another inside a living animal” (Stein, 2008). Also, Harvard biologists “pinpointed three crucial molecular switches that, when flipped, completely convert a common [adult] cell in the pancreas into the more precious insulin-producing ones that diabetics need to survive” (Stein, bracketed item added; cf. Zhou, et al., 2007). This raises the possibility that “patients suffering from not only diabetes but also heart disease, strokes and many other ailments could eventually have some of their cells reprogrammed to cure their afflictions without the need for drugs, transplants or other therapies” (Stein, 2008).
Possibilities for treatment involving stem cells are expanding. “Engineering new tissues and organs from stem cells has long been a goal of researchers, because it would help overcome a chronic shortage of donor organs” (Neel and Silberner, 2008). These dreams are coming true, thanks to the staggering properties of adult stem cells. Recently, a Columbian woman living in Barcelona received a new windpipe that scientists grew from her own stem cells (Macchiarini, et al., 2008). “The pioneering operation used a section of windpipe engineered in a laboratory with adult human stem cells, according to Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, of the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, Spain” (Neel and Silberner, 2008). “Surgeons have carried out the world’s first tissue-engineered whole organ transplant—using a windpipe made from the patient’s own stem cells” (Roberts, 2008). This is the first surgery of its kind to use only donor tissue (Roberts, 2008). The BBC reported:
By using Ms Castillo’s own cells the doctors were able to trick her body into thinking the donated trachea was part of it, thus avoiding rejection. Two types of cell were taken from Ms Castillo: cells lining her windpipe, and adult stem cells—very immature cells from the bone marrow—which could be encouraged to grow into the cells that normally surround the windpipe (Roberts, 2008).
“The graft immediately provided the recipient with a functional airway, improved her quality of life, and had a normal appearance and mechanical properties at 4 months. The patient had no anti-donor antibodies and was not on immunosuppressive drugs” (Macchiarini, et al., 2008). Dr. Eric Genden, who has performed 12 similar transplants with normal tracheal cells rather than stem cells, said that the procedure using adult stem cells “has great promise” (quoted in Neel and Silberner, 2008).
Many in the media and medial fields remain enamored with embryonic stem cells (see Corbyn, 2008). However, more scientists are recognizing that embryos need not be murdered in order to develop therapies, and possibly even cures. While embryonic stem cells are more readily accessible, scientists have demonstrated that embryonic cells hold minimal potential when compared with adult showings in trials (see “Fact Sheet,” 2002; cf. Harrub and Thompson). Ms. Castillo’s successful surgery suggests that “autologous cells [those obtained from the same individual] combined with appropriate biomaterials might provide successful treatment for patients with serious clinical disorders” (Macchiarini, et al., 2008, bracketed item added). The regenerative properties of the human body are stunning.
Regardless of changes biotechnology brings, fundamental ethical concerns are always with us, and the truth does not evolve with scientific advancement:
The issue of stem cell research does not force us to choose between science and ethics, much less between science and religion. It presents a choice as to how our society will pursue scientific and medical progress. Will we ignore ethical norms and use some of the most vulnerable human beings as objects, undermining the respect for human life that is at the foundation of the healing arts? Such a course, even if it led to rapid technical progress, would be a regress in our efforts to build a society that is fully human. Instead we must pursue progress in ethically responsible ways that respect the dignity of each human being. Only this will produce cures and treatments that everyone can live with (“On Embryonic…,” 2008).
As science makes progress formerly unimaginable, may we resist temptations raised by the technological imperative, and bear in mind the Christian prohibition against taking innocent, human life (1 Peter 4:15; cf. Exodus 20:13; Exodus 21:22-25).
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Zhou, Qiao, et al. (2008), “In Vivo Reprogramming of Adult Pancreatic Exocrine Cells to β-Cells,” Nature, [On-line], URL: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nature07314.html.
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