Recent studies on the flexibility and efficacy of non-embryonic stem cell research have bolstered scientists and ethicists hoping to circumvent the ethical and moral concerns surrounding the destruction of embryos required for embryonic stem cell research.
Those ethical concerns reached a climax last week when President George W. Bush announced that he would approve federal funding for testing on embryonic stem cell lines, limited to existing lines derived from destroyed embryos where, he said, "the life and death decision" had already been made.
Less attention has been paid to research on non-embryonic stem cells. This research does not carry the same ethical questions because the cells can be derived without destroying embryos. Most scientists had felt, however, that these adult stem cells were not as flexible as those derived from embryos.
A study published this week in the journal Nature Cell Biology by McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute offers hope that adult stem cells may eventually be just as effective as embryonic stem cell research in treating brain disorders, replacing tissue, and finding cures for disease.
According to the research, stem cells derived from adult human skin tissue have the capability of reforming as muscle, fat and complex brain cells.
A spokesman for the McGill scientists called their research a "breakthrough." She said that, until now, cells taken from skin or marrow have proven less versatile than embryonic stem cells. "Embryonic stem cells are on one end and they can become anything. Adult cells are a little more restricted," said Sandra McPherson.
But "these stem cells," she said, "seem to be more in-between, [in that] they are closer to embryonic because they seem to become three or four different cells."
And she indicated that this could be just the beginning. "One of their next steps is to find out just how many other types these cells can differentiate into," she said.
Another study, from the April issue of the scientific journal Tissue Engineering, reported that stem cells derived from fat retrieved from liposuction procedures have been transformed into bone, muscle, cartilage, and mature fat cells
Michael Novak, a theologian with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, calls it "a blessing" that adult stem cell research is moving forward strongly and would like to see more attention paid to the research.
"It would be a great blessing if you could achieve the same ends with this [adult cell] research," Novak said. "The president himself referred to such therapeutic breakthroughs that had been made in stem cell analysis. There was also some indication from the president that he would give a lot of attention to the research."
Novak and others opposed to embryonic research hope that the promise of adult stem cell research may lead scientists to focus their energies there and not on the controversial research that requires the destruction of embryos.
Dr. Richard Burt, the head of the Immune Therapy and Auto-Immune Disease Division at the Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, agreed that advances in adult stem cell research could help erase the thorny ethical problem.
"It would remove all of the ethical and practical issues that you have with testing on embryonic stem cells - that's one of the reasons I work with adult stem cells," said Burt, who has been studying blood and marrow stem cell uses for 14 years.
Burt applauded Bush's cautious approach to federal funding of stem cell research. "I can see both sides of the issue," he said.
The White House declined comment on the McGill study, but the National Institutes of Health downplayed the findings and asserted that embryonic cells still provide the best chances for successful research.
Spokesman Marc Stern said NIH has spent over $250 million on both adult and embryonic stem cell research. "There is much more versatility," he said of the embryonic stem cells.
"Our belief is embryonic stem cells will be better," he said, explaining that not only can those cells reform into any part of the human body, their reproduction is limitless. The same cannot yet be said of adult cells, he said.