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First Human Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells Draw Skepticism

First Human Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells Draw Skepticism

Not all scientists aren't jumping on the bandwagon to welcome the FDA decision last week that gave a California biotechnology company permission to conduct the first-ever human trial for a treatment derived from embryonic stem cells.

After Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., announced that the company received federal permission to inject a group of patients who have been paralyzed with cells derived from embryonic cells, many in the scientific community celebrated the trial as a breakthrough. Many expressed hope that the research could eventually lead to a treatment for spinal cord injury.

Advocates of stem cell research say they are waiting for President Barack Obama to lift restrictions on government funding for work involving embryonic stem cells. Obama is expected to sign an executive order lifting the ban enacted by President George W. Bush in a few weeks, allowing scientists to receive federal funding for research harvesting cells from new embryonic stem cell lines.

But another group of scientists have raised concerns that the renewed hype over embryonic stem cell research (ESR) will leave adult stem cell research (ASR) overlooked.

Adult stem cell research has produced effective treatments for heart muscle rehabilitation and muscle growth and to treat diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

Despite the highly touted potential of embryonic stem cells to develop into any cell of the body, ESR has yielded no cures to date.

Scientists who back adult stem cell research say it's more effective and less controversial than ESR.

"Of the three types of stem cell research, embryonic is by far the most costly, least useful and most destructive," says Dr. Kathy McReynolds, Biola University professor, bioethicist and director of public policy at the Christian Institute on Disability.

"Both adult stem cells (taken from bone marrow and other tissue sources) and neonatal stem cells (from umbilical cord blood and the placenta) have been used in treating over 100 diseases successfully and have many superior qualities to embryonic stem cells. Nor do they require the destruction of human life."

The latest success story on adult stem research made headlines just a few days following the Geron Corp. announcement.

Researches at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago reported to have developed a treatment for multiple sclerosis using stem cells taken from the patient's own bone marrow. They used the adult stem cells to not only reset the malfunctioning immune system of patients with early-stage multiple sclerosis but also reversed their disability.

Scientists at the Christian Institute on Disability and elsewhere also say the great risks involved in embryonic stem cell research might outweigh any workable therapy that would be developed.

In the Geron study, mature nerve cells derived from embryonic stem cells will be injected at the site of spinal cord injury. Researchers expect the injected cells to help repair damaged nerve cells.

But Dr. David van Gend, national director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, said "Geron is putting the patient at risk of a tumor on the spine," if embryonic stem cells are present at the time researchers inject the mature nerve cells," according to Cybercast News Service.

Joni Eareckson Tada, founder of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, which runs the Christian Institute on Disability, says she is highly skeptical of Geron's research using embryonic stem cells on paraplegics.

Tada, a quadriplegic herself due to spinal cord injury said, "The study is aimed at testing the safety of the procedure, but current tests on rats have yet to eradicate the usual problems related to embryonic stem cell injections, such as the formation of tumors, genetic instability, and tissue rejection – all of which have resulted in the death of laboratory animals."

"If our goal is to find cures fast, developing therapies with adult stem cells is the best route," she says. "Let's invest our money into research that not only respects all human life, but offers a real remedy right now to many diseases."

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