Friday, April 3, 2009

Stem Cell Trial to Test Promise of Stem Cell Research

The stem-cell debate has long been plagued with limited research funds and pro-life controversies. Ethicists, politicians, and philosophers have essentially gone in circles debating whether or not embryos are people, whether or not they deserve special rights, and whether or not we as humans have the right to intervene with embryos and the medical possibilities they pose. From the beginning, embryonic stem-cell research was something with the possibility, rather than the promise, to treat people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injuries. However, that could all change. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently set the stage to allow the first clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells for the treatment of patients with spinal cord injuries.

Geron, a Californian-based biotechnology company plans to inject up to ten patients with small amounts of embryonic stem cells. The cells will have been produced in the lab and treated to become oligodendocytes, which are cells that stimulate nerve cell growth. Although the trial has not yet begun, researchers and doctors are full of optimism and hope.

"For us, it marks the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics. This approach is one that reaches beyond pills and scalpels to achieve a new level of healing," Geron Chief Executive Dr. Thomas Okarma said (

Although I can sympathize with the pro-life side to the story, I cannot help but think that using embryonic stem cells for spinal cord injuries (as well as other uses) brings more good to the stage than it does harm. A close family friend of mine was injured in a car accident over a year ago, leaving him quadriplegic. I conducted a short phone interview with him on the matter of stem cell research with spinal cord injuries. I asked him whether or not he thought that destroying human embryos for research was ethical, and whether or not he would agree to participate in a study such as the one recently approved. He replied “Even though you’ve seen a good part of my recovery, no one can fully understand what it is like to not be able to move your arms and legs until you’re sitting in this wheelchair. Whether or not it is ethical to use embryos; I don’t honestly know. I do know that this embryonic stem cell research gives us hope and I do believe it is unethical to take away someone’s hope. The way I see it, there are plenty of things that go on in the medical world that tamper with human life or are controversial. Clearly some people don’t agree with using embryos for research, but most of these people have probably never been quadriplegic, nor is anyone forcing them to participate in this research. Me however, I’m in this chair, and I would jump at the opportunity to participate in a study like the Geron one you were telling me about.”

My interview with Mark made me realize that it is easy to forget with all of the debates and news going on with stem cell research, that behind all the controversy are people. Current estimates on the number of people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries are as high as 400,000, with an estimated 7800 new cases each year. Most of the injuries happen to people between the ages of 16 and 30. This to me shows that there are a lot of lives at stake, with a lot of quality years of life left. Speaking in a utilitarian manner, wouldn’t we want to do anything we can to maximize the good for these people? Dr. Jack Kessler, a prominent stem cell researcher at Northwestern whose passion for stem cell research was ignited after his daughter was left quadriplegic after a skiing accident, commented on the issue. "This is all about trying to cure disease, trying to help people who are in pain and who are suffering to make them better. I can't think of a more moral or ethical thing to be doing. So i think really, we have the moral high ground."

Although we may be decades away from reversing all of these spinal cord injuries, the first step has been taken to get something done with stem cells clinically.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think you bring an interesting point. As your friend suggests, those who may not be directly influenced by the research may not necessarily be in a position to choose for those who are able to benefit from it. While some argue that using an embryo for embryonic stem cell research is preventing a potential life, I can see the same argument being made when it comes to preventing the death of a life by using embryonic stem cells. In my opinion, its difficult to make this argument without contradicting yourself.

  3. Yeah, I agree. It's kind of like what we talked about in class the other day, with Rawls' original position. If we were to make decisions about it without knowing who we were or whether or not we would benefit from the treatment/research, it would end up being a fair decision. Although it basically impossible to happen, it seems to me that the original position would clear up a lot of ethical debates!

  4. I would be very skeptical about the potential benefits of treating spinal cord injuries as well as the treatment altogether. From a more recent article, scientists were unsure of how to use stem cells in treatments. This would lead me to believe that more research needs to be done before injecting innocent patients with stem cells that have the potential to cause tumors. From the same article, a boy from Israel was diagnosed with ataxia-telangectiasia which has no treatment and minimal survival rate past the late teen years. The boy was injected with fetal stem cells in his brain which led to two infections in 2002 and 2004. Finally in 2005 a brain tumor was identified.
    With this information, I find it very disturbing that a scientist would disregard that information and possibly inject stem cells into another human being so soon because "there is simply not enough evidence from animal studies".

  5. This sounds like a very exciting breakthrough to actually be able to start trials on people. If all goes well, and people with the spinal injuries see improvement from before to after being treated with the stem cells from embryos, then this would probably increase the validity of using embryos to improve those who are already living with injuries. It’s good to hear that the scientists are full of optimism, but what if something does go wrong? What if there was the case of tumors emerging? I hope that this trial goes well (I read it begins sometime this summer) and that it doesn’t turn into an issue of does the benefits outweigh the risks scenario.
    I also agree that the people who are suffering with such injuries or disease’s should not be discounted and agree that the potential to help them with research and trial outweighs the fact of believing that embryos are persons that should not be destroyed to use their stem cells in research that could be promising.

  6. Guac,
    While I understand the concern, I think the fact that it is a clinical trial, accounts for the fact that there is some risk associated with participating. Personally, I don't think I would participate in a study such as this where there is little known about the dangers and complications involved, but then again I have never been in a wheel chair.

  7. I agree with Courtney on this issue. We have to start someplace. Also, if you look at the article that Guac posted about the little boy it seems that the Russian doctors did not really know what they were doing or getting themselves into. The article states that what the doctors were trying to achieve was unclear. Thus, I would be lead to believe that the doctors didn't really have enough information on stem cells to be injecting them into the child's brain. We have done so much research regarding stem cells that it would be different here in the US which could result in a different outcome, possibly without the tumor.