Adult Stem Cells - 3, Embryonic Stem Cells - 0

It is unfortunate that Ronald Reagan’s death from Alzheimer’s disease has been used to promote destructive human embryo research. Nancy Reagan’s vocal support of such research in recent months has given promoters of embryonic stem cell research and cloning assistance in advancing their cause.

But Mrs. Reagan is not the only celebrity to be touting embryonic stem cell research and cloning as the next Merlin’s miracle. Recently, former major league baseball player Ron Santo wrote a letter to Illinois legislators in favor of research using stem cells from embryos.

Mr. Santo’s record and statistics demonstrate his success on the playing field. Unfortunately, those who provided him with information on embryonic stem cells misinformed him about their record. Mr. Santo’s statistics testify to major league status; the record of embryonic stem cells do not earn even sandlot status.

Here are the three claims from Mr. Santo’s letter compared to the actual “playing record” of embryonic stem cells and the alternatives.

Claim 1

“Using embryonic stem cells, researchers at Stanford University who are working on a cure for Type I diabetes are producing new pancreatic islet cells that could be used in human transplants and could herald a cure for this devastating illness.”

Actually, the latest research findings regarding embryonic stem cells are that they do not actually produce insulin in response to glucose changes in their environment and are NOT the pancreatic beta cells needed to treat diabetes. When placed in animals, the cells did not reverse diabetes; instead, they formed tumors.1

By contrast, adult islet cell transplants have already allowed hundreds of juvenile diabetes patients to throw away their insulin needles, and even newer approaches, which do NOT use embryonic stem cells may be in human trials soon. For an overview see: www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/factsheet-04-03-02.htm.

In one new approach pioneered by Harvard researchers, injections of certain cells from the spleen have “re-trained” diabetic animals’ immune systems to stop attacking their own pancreatic cells, after which new insulin-producing cells can regenerate spontaneously.2

Adult stem cells have shown repeated success at forming true insulin-producing islets, and have successfully reversed diabetes in animals. Embryonic stem cells have shown no success. 3

Claim 2

“A Korean research team recently made history by using human embryonic stem cells to cure Parkinson’s disease in rats.”

That is what they claim, but the research is a long way from producing a safe and effective treatment for humans. On the one known occasion when earlier-stage (before 6 weeks) fetal tissue was used to try to treat a human Parkinson’s patient, the tissue killed the patient by forming clumps of bone, skin and hair in the middle of his brain. 4

Moreover, animal trials with embryonic stem cells repeatedly kill many of the animals because of formation of brain tumors.

Meanwhile, the first clinical trial using a patient’s own adult brain stem cells to treat Parkinson’s has produced a lasting 80% reversal of symptoms, and wider human trials are being planned.5

Claim 3

“Rats paralyzed from spinal cord injuries regained their ability to walk after transplantation of specific nerve cells that were derived from mouse embryonic stem cells.”

Actually the functional improvement was modest, and the rats could “almost walk again” after receiving the injections. 6

This research was announced in December 1999, and no one has announced any improvement on it since or moved it toward human trials. Meanwhile, several human patients have shown remarkable recovery from spinal cord injury after receiving injections of adult cells from their own nasal tissue. That breakthrough was recently featured on “Miracle Cell,” an episode of the PBS program Innovation. 7

In reality, none of the claims promoted by embryonic stem cell enthusiasts are actually anywhere close to the research already being accomplished using adult stem cells. In addition, adult stem cells avoid many of the practical problems associated with embryonic stem cell research.

1. You use your own cells instead of those of an embryo with another DNA makeup, which would require taking immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of your life (like one does when they have an organ transplant).

2. You avoid the problem of having to clone yourself to get cells genetically identical to your own to avoid problem 1.

3. You avoid having to obtain scores of human eggs to get the stem cells via cloning. (The South Korean experiment required 242 eggs to get one embryonic stem cell line.)

4. Adult stem cells are already specialized and require less cell specialization to work. (Avoids problems of unspecialized embryonic cells becoming tumors.)

5. Lastly, adult stem cells don’t have the moral problem of requiring the destruction of living human embryos for the research.

While we all are concerned that we find cures for those suffering from disease, such cures do not lie in destroying living human embryos. They lie instead in research developments that, in many cases, are already here. 


1 See S. Sipione et al., “Insulin expressing cells from differentiated embryonic stem cells are not beta cells,” Diabetologia 47(3): 499-508, March 2004; abstract at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=14968299&dopt=Abstract

2 See S. Kodama et al., “Islet regeneration during the reversal of autoimmune diabetes in NOD mice,” Science 302: 1223-1227; 14 November 2003.

3 See for example S. Oh et al., “Adult bone marrow-derived cells transdifferentiating into insulin-producing cells for the treatment of type I diabetes,” Laboratory Investigation published online 22 March 2004, abstract at www.nature.com/cgi-taf/dynapage.taf?file=/labinvest/journal/v84/n5/abs/3700074a.html.

4 See Neurology, issue of May 1, 1996, at www.neurology.org/cgi/content/abstract/46/5/1219.

5 See www.wchstv.com/newsroom/healthyforlife/1901.shtml.

6 See www.neuro.wustl.edu/sci/backonpaws.htm.

7 See the transcript: www.pbs.org/wnet/innovation/transcript_episode6.html.