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Policy Communiqué

The False Promises of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

 Joel P. Rutkowski, Ph.D., President 
The American Voice Institute Of Public Policy  


For Alzheimer's, Stem Cells Are An Unlikely Therapy  
Adult Stem Cells
Tissue Rejection
Tens of Millions of Human Eggs Required  
A False Sense Of Hope

To promote embryonic stem cell research that involves the destruction of human life, Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Senator John Edwards during a campaign stop in Iowa on October 10, 2004 said, “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is President, people like Christopher Reeve are going to get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” (1) 

On October 21, 2004, Senator John Kerry joined by the widow of paralyzed actor  Christopher Reeve said President's Bush's policy on stem cell research was akin to favoring the candle lobby over electricity.  

The Democratic President Challenger said, ”It is wrong to tell scientists that they can't cross the frontier of new knowledge.  It is wrong morally and it is wrong economically, and when I am President we will change this policy and we will lead the world in stem cell research.”  (2)  

Senator Kerry wants to expand federally funded embryonic stem-cell research.  On the other hand, President Bush has restricted research to already existing lines of stem cells and opposes the use of a new source of human embryos.  

On June 12, 2004, challenging  the Bush administration to relax restrictions on stem cell research to pursue potential cures for Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other illnesses, Mr. Kerry endorsed Nancy Reagan's efforts.  (3.)  

And on November 2, 2004, Californian voters will decide if their state will provide $3 billion in funding for stem-cell research through a bond measure. The measure will actually cost the state an additional $3 billion in interest that would bring the total cost for taxpayers to $6 billion for medical treatments that may never successfully arise.  

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For Alzheimer's, Stem Cells Are An Unlikely Therapy  

By Senator Kerry endorsing Nancy Reagan's efforts, he is looking for an emotional response that will cause individuals that have loved ones or friends afflicted by this disease to support his aspiration to become President.    AD is among the least likely to benefit, stem cell experts admit, from embryonic stem cell treatments (4).

And, advances from other approaches are likely to come faster.  (5) Other more promising efforts that in five to ten years may be used to fight the disease are cited by experts.  Marilyn Albert, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who chairs the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer's Association said, “I think everybody feels there are higher priorities for seeking effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease and for identifying preventive strategies.” (6)  

Also, Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, associate director of the National Institute on Aging's neuroscience and neuropsychology of aging program said, “There's an awful lot going on right now that perhaps holds a little bit more immediate promise for trying to slow the disease, or even cut off its development. (Ibid.)  For example, efforts to attack the buildup of clumps of protein called amyloid in the brain, and methods for spotting the disease early were cited by Drs. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad and Marilyn Albert. (7)  

Dr. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad said, “What you're dealing with here is a mind in disarray.  Connections between brain cells are being lost, neurons are dying and becoming dysfunctional, the amyloid plaques are building up between brain cells and protein tangles are showing up within cells.  And there's inflammation.  It's just a mess in there.  But the mess means there are so many targets for intervention.” (8) 

Globally, scientist and drug companies are study ways to prevent or destroy amyloid plaques that have emerged as a favorite target.  

A vaccine that primes the body to attack amyloid is one high-profile approach.  Despite encouraging studies on animals, several vaccine recipients developed brain inflammation in a study in 2002 on people, thus halting the research. (9)  In 2003, in one study, participant researchers reported that the vaccine did appear to reduce the accumulation of plaques.  

Dr. Marilyn Albert said work is continuing now on a safer vaccine, since the available evidence suggests “this is an important avenue to pursue.”  

To keep the brain from manufacturing the abnormal form of amyloid that creates the plaques is another popular approach.  Dr. Marilyn Albert said, it's a high priority at “every major drug company.”  

Making her optimistic is the overall focus on amyloid.  She said, “Everybody's working on it.  What we've learned from the past is that everybody works really hard at something that is sensible, they're likely to make a lot of progress.  So there's just enormous optimism that in five, or certainly ten years, we'll have much more effective treatments.” (10)  

Finding a way to predict who will get AD prior to symptoms appearing is another key research area.  Much damage has been done by the time AD is diagnosed since the disease develops over many years.  For the day when more effective treatments become available scientists want to identify people at an earlier stage.  

Also, so scientists can quickly tell if the treatment is effective, they want to find ways to track the progress of the disease in people being treated.  

To determine if different types of brain scans, mental tests and spinal or blood test can predict development or progression of the disease, researchers are doing long-term studies.  

Also, being studied to determine if they can help prevent AD or delay it are lifestyle factors such as taking anti-inflammatory drugs and vitamins such as E and C.  

The use of cholesterol-reducing drugs are also being explored by researchers.   It is believed that keeping blood pressure and cholesterol low and staying physically active may help, which is a relatively recent idea.  

It is becoming clear however, that “If you do things that are good for your heart, they'll be good for your brain,” said Dr. Dr. Marilyn Albert (11.)

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Adult Stem Cells  

Already treating human maladies are adult-stem cells and related tissue therapies (not embryonic stem cells). (12)  In animal and human studies, both in the United States as well as abroad, the science is moving forward at an exhilarating pace.  For example, generally with very encouraging results early human trials have begun for conditions such a Parkinson's disease, corneal injury, multiple sclerosis and heart damage among others.  In paralyzed human patients, for example, using their own olfactory tissue in Lisbon, Portugal, Dr. Carlos Lima has helped restore some muscle and bladder control. Also, with the aid of braces at least one patient regained the ability to stand.  Furthermore, a feat that no embryonic-stem cell experiment has even come close to matching, mice at the end stage of juvenile diabetes were cured using human spleen cells. Therefore, the best avenue to pursue, if the goal of scientists is to create effective treatments for degenerative conditions in the quickest possible time is to pursue the non-embryonic approach.

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Tissue Rejection  

Daunting challenges that may keep them from ever becoming a regular part of medical treatment are faced by embryonic-stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning. For example, the likelihood that the body would reject embryonic stem cells as in the case of a transplanted organ, is a major hurdle to use embryonic-stem cells in regenerative medical treatments taken from leftover in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment indicates an article in the May 2004 Scientific American. (13)  Tissue typing is one suggested way out of this dilemma.  However, that could require hundreds of thousands of embryonic stem (ES) cell lines…to establish a bank of cells with immune matches for most potential patients.  Creating that many lines would require millions of discarded embryos from IVF clinics.”  As a viable medical treatment, it would doom embryonic stem cell research.  Furthermore, major issues have failed to be recognized if this procedure would be used. (14) For example, from the eggs of a woman, human embryos must be created.  For women, producing eggs engenders increased risks.  According to some studies, hyperstimulation can result in liver damage, kidney failure, or stoke; and ovulation-stimulating drugs have been associated with ovarian cancer.  In the case of having a child women might be willing to undergo such risks, but it appears quite clear that to persuade women to produce eggs for stem cell research, either payment for eggs or coercion would have to be used.  

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Tens of Millions of Human Eggs Required  

Since the embryonic stem cells derived from cloned embryos of each patient would likely not be rejected, the rejection conundrum can be overcome by therapeutic cloning.  However, more wildly impractical than making hundreds of thousands of embryonic-stem cell lines is therapeutic cloning.  For each attempt, an egg is required for human cloning which is also know as somatic-cell nuclear transfer. (SCNT)  And there are more than 100 million Americans who could benefit from regenerative medicine claims the National Academy of Sciences. (NAS).  What makes this even more impractical from a scientific point of view is that in 2003, a NAS report suggested based on mouse studies that it could take about 100 human eggs per patient just to derive on cloned embryonic-stem-cell line. (15)  To create one human cloned embryonic-stem cell line  South Korean scientists recently announced using 244 eggs. (16)  One can be very certain, assuming that the data from the South Korean scientists is correct, that therapeutic cloning would never be brought to local clinics since it would almost surely never be able to accumulate the billions of human eggs required for wide spread therapeutic cloning.  One suggested alternative to elevate this dilemma is the use of animal eggs. However,  with unknown consequences, that would introduce animal mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) into human patients.

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Prohibitively expensive would be such treatments even if developed.  Currently, about $1,000 to $2,000 per human egg, used in fertility treatments, is the payment received by young women of child bearing age.  Thus just for the eggs used by one patient that is roughly $200,000 per treatment if it would require 100 eggs per therapeutic cloning treatment.  Furthermore, as a result to the sharp spike in demand, this price does not account for the enormous inflation in egg price that would result from therapeutic cloning.  Hence, this therapy would be either available only to the very wealthy or so costly that it would have to be stringently rationed even if it could be developed through biotechnology.

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Currently, embryonic stem cells produce tumors in animal studies making them unsafe for human patients to use.  Also, this difficulty would not be resolved by using cloned embryos to derive stem cells.  

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A False Sense Of Hope  

Tragically many in America have fallen for the false hope that has been generated by politicians such as Senators John Kerry and John Edwards and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California such so that these politicians can make political gains for themselves.  It was morally and ethically wrong for Senator John Edwards to promise voters in Iowa that if Senator Kerry is elected President that people like Christopher Reeve would one day get out wheelchairs and walk again all because he would allow government funding of embryonic stem cell research.  Scientifically, this cannot be validated at this time, and it is very wrong as well as disingenuous for anyone to make such promises.  Fundamental and complex are the problems associated with embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning which quite possibly for some may be intractable.  

On the other hand, making tremendous advances are adult stem cell therapies.  For example with many already in routine therapeutic use are more than 30 anticancer uses for adult stem cells. (17) Autoimmune disease, in which the body's own protective system turns on itself, is the area in which adult stem cell applications are moving fastest by some accounts.  Diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Evans syndrome, rheumatic disease and amyotropic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease, among many others) are just some of the diseases for which adult stem cells are being currently tested on humans.    Also, two different human-autopsy studies demonstrated that adult stem cells transfused into the marrow and worked their way into the brain, where they can repair neurons and other vital cells, last February.  When injected into animals with severed spinal cords, stem cells rushed to the injury site effecting repair demonstrated other studies.  Helen Blau of the Sanford University Brain Research Institute, the leader of one of the two studies said, “I think the stem cells may act as a repair squad.  They travel through the bloodstream, respond to stress, and contribute to brain cells. They clearly repair damage in muscle and other tissues.” (18)

And French researchers reported during the last 14 years that they had performed 69 stem-cell transplants with an 85 percent disease-free survival rate at a conference in late 2002. (19).  And all 30 of the last transplants have been successful since improving their procedure in 1992. 

Found in nonadult tissue such as umbilical cords, placentas and amniotic fluid are adult stem cells.  They are also found in hair follicles, fat, livers, pancreases, retinas, blood, bone marrow, skin, brains, spinal cords, dental pulp, muscles, blood vessels and corneas.  Since the 1980's to treat leukemia and other diseases, adult stem cells have been used therapeutically.

If one is to gain some hindsight into which therapy could possibly be more successful adult stem cell or embryonic stem cell research they should just examine which has received the most private funding. (20) Since the majority of scientific findings are favorable for adult stem cell research, private investors and donors are investing their money in this area while others call for the government funding for embryonic stem cell research.   Furthermore, another reason why many researchers are proponents of embryonic stem cell research which has not produced a single treatment for a single patients is simple— financial gains. When a patient is treated with adult stem cells, the individual's own cells are grown and given back to the individual.  As a result the stem cell line created is not owned by anyone.  On the other hand, however, by creating and patenting embryonic stem cell lines, an economic bonanza for researchers could result.  Since economic resources are finite, and therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research are morally and ethically wrong, adult stem cell research is the best avenue to pursue in the treatment of disease based on mounting scientific research. 

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  1. Steven Ertelt, “John Edwards Accused of Exploiting Christopher Reeve's Death on Stem Cell Research,” Lifenews.com., October 13, 2004.
  2. Patricia Wilson, “Kerry: Bush ‘Morally Wrong' on Stem Cell Research,” Reuters, October 21, 2004.
  3. Siobhan McDonough, Kerry, on Radio, Hails Stem Cell Research, The Associated Press, June 18, 2004.
  4. Rick Weiss, Stem Cells Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer's,” The Washington Post, June 10, 2004.
  5. Malcom Ritter, “Stem Cells Not Alzheimer's Priority, The Associated Press, June 11, 2004.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Wesley J. Smith, Cell Wars,” National Review Online, June 8, 2004.
  13. Robert Lanza and Nadia Rosenthal, “The Stem Cell Challenge,” Scientific American, May 24, 2004.
  14. Cynthia B. Cohen, et. al., “Ethical Issues in Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Journal of the American Medical Association, March 2001; 285: 1439-1440
  15. Wesley J. Smith, Cell Wars,” National Review Online, June 8, 2004.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Michael Fumento, “The Stem Cell Cover-Up,” Insight Magazine, May 16, 2004.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Jonathan Smith, “Brownback Makes Case for Adult Stem Cell Research,” Human Events Online, June 24, 2004.

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