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What's all this about stem cells?

by Tom Shakespeare

8th February 2009

America is trialling it, Barack Obama is about to endorse it, Scottish doctors think it could cure a form of blindness, and a toddler is going all the way to China for it. Over the last month, it's been hard to miss all the news stories about stem cell therapy. We know that therapies based on stem cells are likely to be extremely beneficial to all sorts of disabled people in the future, but where are we with it all right now? I think it's time for a bit of a recap ...

What is stem cell therapy?

Stem cells, magnified in extreme close-up
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells - lacking qualities that make them different or unique - which are capable of developing into any of the 200 different types of cell in the human body. They are derived from embryos, from the umbilical cord or, with greater difficulty, from the scarce stem cells in adults or children.

Stem cells can be used to grow tissues for transplantation - for example, heart muscle or brain cells or liver cells. They can also be used as models for disease, which can then be used in research - meaning better knowledge or less reliance on animal experimentation. This has recently been achieved for spinal muscular atrophy.

Who might be helped by these therapies?

People who have diseases or impairments which are caused by tissue damage or degeneration can potentially be helped by stem cell therapy. For example, people with diabetes, liver disease and Parkinson's, maybe even people with spinal cord injury.

A new trial is exploring whether stroke survivors could benefit too, whilst the latest news suggests that stem cells from patients' own bone marrow could help reverse the early signs of MS.

Most of these therapies are only at the stage of initial trials in humans - for example, studies on corneal blindness and spinal cord injury are just starting.

Does it work?

Stem cell treatments have been successful in treating Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID) and a few other conditions in research settings. While stem cell therapy sounds good in theory, in practice it is very hard to grow specific cell types and control their growth safely. The children cured of SCID went on to contract a form of leukaemia. Research continues to understand why, and to improve safety and effectiveness.

When might therapies be available?

Embryonic stem cells, seen under a microscope
The first clinical trial of an embryonic stem cell therapy has just been authorised by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Clinical trials can take up to 10 years, so even if a therapy is shown to be successful, scientists or pharmaceutical companies then have to prove that it is safe. Animal trials have shown that therapies for spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy and other conditions have great potential, but effective treatments are still a long way off. Therapies may be beneficial in the early days after a spinal cord injury, but not benefit those who have been injured for a long time.

What's the ethical issue here?

Embryonic stem cell therapy depends on destroying embryos - usually surplus embryos from IVF treatment. Those who believe that life starts at conception will equate this to murder. The Vatican reaffirmed its opposition to embryonic stem cell research in December, but permits research using adult stem cells.

Another controversy is over somatic cell nuclear transfer, otherwise known as therapeutic cloning, which would enable stem cell tissues to be matched to the patient, but bring us closer to the possibility of reproductive cloning.

Under President Bush, creation of new embryonic stem cell lines was forbidden in America. President Obama is expected to permit a more liberal approach to research.

What's the political issue?

Stem cells being cloned in a laboratory
For those who take a pure social model approach to disability, the problem for disabled people is not their impairment but the barriers and discrimination within society. Stem cell therapy is offered as a cure for disability, whereas activists often deny their need or desire for cure.

Moreover, promises of scientific breakthroughs and wonderful medical treatments have been made for over fifty years, and there is scepticism about the current stem cell hyperbole. Superman actor Christopher Reeve was so convinced that stem cell therapy would cure spinal cord injury that he said that barrier removal and disability rights was unnecessary. Most others disagree.

So is it just a load of hype?

There is definitely lots of media excitement about stem cell therapy, as well as the occasional irresponsible announcement from a scientist. There are also big commercial interests involved: stories of miraculous stem cell treatments in less regulated countries such as China, Thailand, India and Russia are questionable, with vulnerable consumers being charged an average of 21,500 dollars for unproven therapies.

In Britain, many parents have been encouraged to pay for their infant's umbilical cord blood to be stored in private stem cell banks, with the hope that this might help with future disease. But scientists are sceptical as to whether the promised benefits will materialise.

But despite these negative stories, overall it is fair to say that leading scientists in the UK and US are responsible and very tightly regulated, and that many believe that ultimately this line of research will transform medicine.

You'll see many more news stories in the months and years ahead, so stay tuned for more updates on 'tailor made tissues'.

Comments

    • 1. At 2:26pm on 09 Feb 2009, Chris_Page wrote:

      Once again, you demonstrate your misunderstanding of the Social Model of Disability - and in doing so, you arrogantly claim those of us who find these therapies problematic are in denial about our own impairments. It might "cure" an impairment, but it will never dismantle the entrenched Disablism that is endemic in society. All it will do is create a divide in the Disabled People's Movement that governments and other vested interests can exploit in order to enforce their "normality" on the rest of us.

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    • 2. At 09:16am on 10 Feb 2009, shaunpilkington wrote:

      I have MS and while I do consider Disablism wrong. I do point out that once I did not have MS symptoms and my life was materially better for it. I want a cure, I don't feel that society is discriminating against me when the disease is affecting my own capacity to walk (which I enjoy - wheelchairs and bionics are a different issue), to need the loo and to see. Stem Cell research provides me with an opportunity to be *healthy* again and no irate lefty banging on about disabled rights will make me feel guilty for wanting to restore my physical capacity.

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    • 3. At 09:17am on 10 Feb 2009, shaunpilkington wrote:

      I have MS and while I do consider Disablism wrong,I do point out that once I did not have MS symptoms and my life was materially better for it.

      I want a cure, I don't feel that society is discriminating against me when the disease is affecting my own capacity to walk (which I enjoy - wheelchairs and bionics are a different issue), to need the loo and to see. Stem Cell research provides me with an opportunity to be *healthy* again and no irate lefty banging on about disabled rights will make me feel guilty for wanting to restore my physical capacity.

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    • 4. At 12:38pm on 10 Feb 2009, Chris_Page wrote:

      It's because of us "irate lefties" that you are able to get the current level of support to enable you to maintain a quality of life. You have to acknowledge the struggle of previous generations of Disabled who fought for - and sometimes died in the effort - so that Disabled people get the rights we now have, not take it for granted.

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    • 5. At 7:37pm on 12 Feb 2009, eLle-on-wheels wrote:

      Eeek, am I not allowed to campaign for disabled rights AND want my disabling illness cured by any means necessary? I was unaware these things were mutually exclusive...I wanna be an irate campaigning leftie and I wanna walk again...

      I will still campaign if my illness is cured...honest!

      eLle
      http://www.stilettowheels.co.uk

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    • 6. At 6:07pm on 19 Jan 2010, JohnSkint wrote:

      As a person who has E., I could imagine that some of the things I like about myself would disappear if I was cured. But it has taken too many years to arrive at the place where I can accept myself, no matter what others may think of my behaviour. At the same time, I condemn disablism, and respond strongly whenever I encounter it.
      I can repay my debt to past generations by carrying on where they left off, but still hope for the day when a cure might release future E-Types from some of the pain many still experience.

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