A March 7-8 conference at Rome’s Legionaries of Christ-run Regina Apostolorum University took up the vexed question of stem cell research. The gathering was sponsored by a number of American Catholic and pro-life groups, and several participants are connected to the President’s Council on Bioethics in the United States. At least some of the voices represented what would conventionally be recognized as the “conservative” end of the Catholic spectrum. That said, the speakers represented a cross-section of disciplines and perspectives, and it was a fascinating discussion.
Dr. Maureen Condic of the University of Utah suggested that from a scientific point of view, the question of embryonic cells may be increasingly moot, since the use of adult stem cells seems to accomplish much, if not all, of what embryonic research promises.
Condic noted that there are several sources of stem cells in the human body: bone marrow, peripheral blood, fat, the placenta, the umbilical cord and umbilical blood. The conventional wisdom, she said, is that these cells are less useful therapeutically than the embryonic because: 1) they’re harder to grow in culture; 2) they’re less plastic and cannot differentiate into all cell types, therefore they only give rise to limited number of derivatives; and 3) can treat only a limited number of diseases.
In fact, she argued, the conventional wisdom is wrong on all three points.
As far as growth in culture, Condic pointed out that today it’s possible to generate 10 trillion cells from umbilical material in 30 days, an amount greater in mass than the entire population of the planet. These materials, she said, “produce cells resembling blood, bone, muscle and nerve that are very appropriate for transplant into all people. This is increasingly true for almost every type of adult stem cell.”
On the subject of plasticity, she said, the real issue is not so much the theoretical capacities of a cell, but how a cell responds in a real-world environment. In that context, she said, adult stem cells can produce virtually all the cells of an adult animal, and some classes of adult cells are just as “pluripotent” as embryonic cells.
In terms of their usefulness in treatment, Condic pointed out that adult cells are in use today to treat diverse conditions such as heart disease, spinal cord injury and retinal blindness.
“These cells are able to functionally integrate into host tissue, they can survive over long term, they do not cause pathology, and they will alleviate symptoms or potentially cure them,” she said. “This is not science fiction, this is medicine.”