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Non-embryonic stem cells: Healing for broken bodies

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WASHINGTON (BP)–Susan Fajt and Laura Dominguez have experienced the miraculously restorative power of stem cells, and no embryos had to be destroyed for them to benefit.

Fajt and Dominguez, who were told they would never walk again after debilitating automobile accidents, are beginning to do just that after undergoing transplant surgery using their own stem cells. The success of this pioneering procedure on these two young Texas women has added their names to a growing list of patients being successfully treated by the cells at the center of a national debate.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that produce other cells and tissues. Their discovery has raised hopes for treating a variety of afflictions, including Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.

These master cells from sources such as adult bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and placentas have been shown to provide cures for numerous ailments in human beings. Stem cells also are found in human embryos, and that fact is at the heart of the controversy. While stem cells may be obtained from non-embryonic sources without harming a donor, procuring the cells from embryos destroys them. That is unacceptable for many Americans, including President Bush, who believe human embryos should be protected though only days old.

Though all the stem cell therapies to result in cures for patients so far have been derived from non-embryonic sources, many researchers continue to say stem cells from embryos have more potential. But, these researchers have no successful treatments of human beings to provide as evidence. Their research using embryonic cells in animals has had a tendency to produce tumors. Yet, they continue to lobby for Bush to drop his prohibition on federal funding of destructive embryonic stem cell experimentation.

Susan Fajt, from Austin, Texas, and Laura Dominguez, from San Antonio, Texas, didn’t need the president’s pro-life policy to be rescinded to learn firsthand the power of stem cells. Fajt was 24, Dominguez 16 when their spinal cords were severely damaged in separate car wrecks in 2001. Those accidents left Fajt paralyzed in her lower body and Dominguez paralyzed from the neck down.

Their searches for treatment led them to Portugal, where Carlos Lima performed surgery on them. For each of them, he transplanted stem cells from the olfactory tissue between the nose and brain to the location of the injury in the spinal cord. When Dominguez had the surgery months before Fajt, she was only the 10th person in the world to undergo the procedure.

Now, though both continue to use wheelchairs, they can walk with braces. It requires 30 minutes, but Dominguez can walk a quarter of a mile.

When Fajt was injured, doctors told her she “would never walk, swim, … take a bath by myself, and I’m doing all of those,” she said June 24, only a year and a week after the surgery that lasted more than 10 hours.

Both testified to the success of adult stem cell treatment at a Capitol Hill news conference. Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., hosted the young women and reporters in his office, and he pointed to another evidence of the promise of non-embryonic stem cell research — private funding.

The vast amount of private funding of stem cell research is going into adult stem cells, “because that’s where the results are,” Brownback said. “There’s not a controversy associated with it, and the results are coming” from that area, he said.

Another member of Congress recently said the funding practices of some embryonic stem cell advocates reveal a hidden agenda.

Some groups “are engaged in what I believe is deceptive communications on this issue,” Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla., said in a June 15 floor speech. He cited the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a leading campaigner to change Bush’s restrictions. Though JDRF says embryonic research is the most promising, it spent only $3 million in research on embryonic stem cells and $15 million on adult stem cell research, Weldon said.

“Why is [JDRF] saying that embryo stem cell research has the most potential, but they are spending [five] times as much money on adult stem cell research?” asked Weldon, a physician. “The truth is we have a multi-billion dollar Biotechnology industry in America today, and they are spending nothing on this research. The advocates for this research are clamoring to get the American taxpayer to pay for it.”

American taxpayers are funding research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources and even for experiments using stem cells from embryos where “the life-and-death decision has already been made,” as Bush described it when he issued his 2001 order. That decision, which halted funding of any more destructive research, has resulted in 19 colonies of embryonic stem cells for the use of researchers.

The federal government announced July 15 it would open a “national bank” to help grow these colonies, according to The Associated Press. That announcement did nothing to appease those who want federal funds to support research that would require the killing of more embryos.

A “pattern of facts” becomes apparent in examining the campaign to fund embryonic stem cell research, said Eric Cohen, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

“Embryonic stem cell research is promising but so far purely speculative,” Cohen wrote May 25 on National Review Online; “the federal government in no way limits such research in the private sector; supporters of the research believe they can obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding in the next few years, as the creation of new stem cell institutes at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin demonstrates; and yet, despite the ethical objections of a very substantial portion of the public, stem cell advocates insist that Congress should compel every American to support the research with tax dollars, and to make that happen they inflate the promise and distort the facts surrounding the research.”

Copyright © 2001-2004, Florida Baptist Witness,
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Published July 22, 2004

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