Adult stem cells making news

WASHINGTON - Stem-cell research is once again making news in Congress and the courts. But this time, it's on the sports pages too.

And instead of the embryonic stem-cell research that was once all the rage, the news is in the field of adult stem-cell research, which does not involve the destruction of human embryos.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, sidelined with a neck injury, reportedly went to an unidentified European country in recent weeks to obtain a treatment involving adult stem cells that is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.

Free-agent wide receiver Terrell Owens, whose football career was put on hold because of knee surgery, went to South Korea for the collection and storage of his own stem cells in an effort to speed his return to the NFL.

It remains to be seen how successful those treatments will be, but adult stem-cell researcher Theresa Deisher knows that the two football players chose "the clinically superior solution" over research involving stem cells derived from human embryos.

Deisher is working to develop better delivery techniques for adult stem-cell therapies. Researchers in Europe and elsewhere "are doing very well treating patients" with their own stem cells, but "they have some delivery issues," she told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Seattle, where she runs AVM Biotechnology. "If we could improve delivery, we could have even better outcomes."

When his or her own stem cells are injected into a patient's heart tissue, for example, "that patient's (likelihood of) survival is improved and very significantly," said Deisher, who holds a doctorate in molecular and cellular physiology. But 90 percent of the stem cells "are sequestered in the spleen" and "what we are working on is to figure out how to block that accumulation in the spleen," she said.

Deisher, who is Catholic, was committed to adult stem-cell research from the beginning because of her belief that life begins at conception.

"My faith kept me from working with them," she said. "But over time my objections also became scientific and clinical and economic - embryonic stem cells are outrageously expensive."

The researcher said she has faced increasing pressure in recent years to become involved in embryonic stem-cell research and when she has declined she has found that proponents of the use of embryos "want to try and use people's morals to destroy their scientific credibility."

The pressure has only served to solidify her conviction that "it is morally wrong to exploit another human being."

"It's only a tiny clump of cells that you can't really even see, and it can be difficult for people to embrace the importance of something like that," Deisher said. "But that is a human being, and once you start exploiting any human being you open the door to exploiting all human beings and that is wrong, to treat human beings as commodities."

Deisher believes the Obama administration's moves to expand federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research violates the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which bars any funds for research that destroys human embryos. She is one of two plaintiffs judged to have standing in a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health's revised criteria that permits funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

Although Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia initially ruled that the lawsuit was likely to prevail and briefly stopped all NIH funding of embryonic stem-cell research, he was overturned by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and later dismissed the lawsuit.

In mid-September, attorneys for Deisher and Dr. James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute filed notice of their intent to appeal the dismissal.

Seeking to achieve a similar goal through a different route is the bipartisan Patients First Act, reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Sept. 20 by Reps. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.

The legislation would direct NIH "to prioritize stem-cell research that has the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefits, by directing both basic and clinical research toward what is currently showing benefits in treating patients" - in other words, adult stem-cell research, which has made advances in the treatment of spinal-cord injuries, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart disease.

"As public servants, we have the responsibility to consider both the medical and ethical implications of the research we support with U.S. tax dollars, particularly at a time of budgetary constraints," Forbes said in a news release.

"The Patients First Act recognizes that the twin goals of scientific advancement and the protection of human life are not mutually exclusive; rather they should be one in the same," he added. "By setting aside divisive political battles and prioritizing research with proven clinical success, we can finally make long-awaited progress in beating dreaded diseases, from diabetes to breast cancer."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970