With the controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells, the above headline may come as a shock. The recent veto by President George Bush that denied extra federal funding for research conducted on embryonic stem cells, along with the clamor and backlash the decision faced from scientists, politicians, and various institutions, has all but confirmed the importance of embryonic stem cells. Is that not right? Perhaps not, as commentator Pat Boone recently found out. The fact is, embryonic stem cells may not be as important as we all think.
A couple of months ago, I was in downtown Los Angeles, at the courthouse, doing my jury duty for several days. There are always breaks and lulls, during which time hundreds of participants can and do talk and get to know each other. I actually enjoyed it.
During one of those breaks, I was electrified by a conversation with an L.A. scientist/engineer/businessman named John. Somehow the subject of embryonic stem-cell research came up, and I expressed my deep concerns about the eventual creation of nascent embryos and then the use of them in laboratory experiments. The state of California recently committed 3 billion taxpayer dollars, over the strenuous objections of many of us, to this experimentation.
Boone thinks like many of us today, that embryonic stem cells hold some sort of key to all our ailments. However, the moral dilemma that many individuals have with using embryos fuels the controversy. It seems as if the only thing keeping us from making great medical strides and developing advanced and effective treatments for illnesses that are incurable, is money to do the research needed to find the answers, and the elimination of any moral and religious debate. This has been the underlying principle behind embryonic stem cell research as Boone describes.
The rationale, the hope, is that pure embryonic stem cells might be effective in treating dire conditions like Parkinson’s, cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no proof, just the hope and projections of eager scientists and many large medical companies, and the very understandable desire of so many whose lives are affected by these and other maladies. The yearnings to find cures, somehow, somewhere, are overriding the moral questions about actually fertilizing a human egg with a human sperm, creating a life (obviously, if the new creation isn’t living, it’s useless) – and then dissecting and short-circuiting the inevitable development of this living organism in a search for a possible cure-all.
John continued to explain to Boone what his company specialized in. Dr. John said that it was non-controversial stem cells and treatment. He told Boone about the research that they had done and in detail pointed out the differences between embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells. Boone’s commentary below shows his amazement at what he heard. Because like many of us today, he was led to believe by the media and hype surrounding embryonic stem cells, that they were the only answer and that any moral dilemmas any of us face would have to be sequestered.
John told me about his company, a Los Angeles based adult stem-cell company whose goal is to develop stem-cell products for the life science and health-care industries. He informed me that the scientific founders of this company have over 30 years of experience in stem-cell research –and that they have discovered a novel stem cell from adult tissues with properties similar to cells obtained from embryos! These cells can be – and are being – recovered from almost any tissue found in adult humans, while maintaining many of the properties described for embryonic stem cells!
I was astounded.
John went on to tell me about the research conducted all these years by Dr. H and his colleagues in laboratories in Georgia, demonstrating scientifically that postnatal individuals – that’s you and me – contain a series of adult stem cells with attributes very similar, but not identical, to stem cells derived from embryos and fetuses. The similarities between these two groups of stem cells, i.e., embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, include an unlimited ability to increase in numbers (self-renewal) and their ability to form any cell type in the body, including the gametes.
John continued to outline the discrepancies between the two forms of stem cells, and went on to state that a person could even use their own stem cells harvested from their own body. This would be ideal since they would be an exact match for the patient right down to the very DNA, and eliminate any chance of rejection.
The differences noted between embryonic and adult stem cells are reflected in the programming of the cells. The former cells are pre-programmed to form all the tissues of an individual. This event occurs automatically after conception, with fusion of the reproductive gametes, the sperm and ovum. In contrast, adult stem cells are not preprogrammed to form anything; they wait for exterior or environmental signals to tell them what they should do. They’re in a “resting state,” in effect waiting for marching orders. And Dr. H demonstrates, in a powerful photographic presentation that my wife and I have seen, that his group can – and have – identified and utilized specific chemical agents that can tell adult stem cells to form a specific single cell type, which they will do. And then those cells can be injected into the blood stream, where they will seek and find the damaged place where they’re needed!
And, wonderfully, a patient’s own easily harvested adult stem cells can be used for his or her own treatment, and the implanted “self” stem cells will not be rejected! In the presentation Shirley and I saw, we observed these powerful cells go like homing pigeons to the most needed spots in the heart or brain or other vital organ of the donor – and repair the damage. It looked truly miraculous, and we believe it is.
Boone finished his commentary by once again discussing the moral issues surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. But there is an alternative as Boone learned. All the benefits of stem cell therapy, without any moral issues to hold science back. Boone even cites biblical passages in the end to point out that the bible, the foundation of the morals that drive many to oppose embryo use, may have been trying to tell us what all along what now seems to be an answer.
We’re not doctors or scientists and can only partially grasp all we’re seeing and hearing about. But to us, what these qualified and experienced scientists have discovered and developed not only makes the very expensive, long-range and extremely questionable research and use of created embryos unnecessary, it also offers help and probably miraculous treatment much more imminent and abundantly available, without the moral dilemma.
It reminds me of the time Moses balked at God’s command to confront Pharaoh with His command “Let My people go!” Moses felt so inadequate and asked, “Why should Pharaoh listen to what I say?” And God answered, “What is that in thy hand?”
Moses, befuddled, said, “My staff, my walking stick … Why?” God told him to throw it on the ground, and it became a serpent. Then God told him to pick it up, which Moses gingerly did, and it was a staff again. The point was the Creator of all mankind can do anything He wants, and we’re created in His image, with infinite capabilities. Instead of trying to “play God” and tamper with His proprietary creative processes, I feel we should recognize that He’s asking again, “What is that in your hand, in your blood? Use that, and I’ll work with you. Leave creation to me. I’ve got a lot more experience than you do!”