TORONTO, September 22, 2006 ( – The month of September saw the usual flood of stories on developments in stem cell research which continues to both hold out hope for treatment of disease in the case of adult stem cells, and draw criticism in the case of embryos.

Dr. Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts published a study in the scientific journal Cloning and Stem Cells showing that human embryonic stem cells are being used in experiments on rats and the blind animals’ sight was partially restored.ÂÂ

Dr. Lanza said, “We have demonstrated that these human embryonic-stem-cell-derived cells can rescue visual function in animals that otherwise would have gone blind.”

The study claimed that embryonic cells can be induced to become retinal pigment epithelium cells without forming tumours commonly associated with embryonic stem cell treatments. The injected rats developed a new layer of the cells and had partial restoration of their sight.

Other experiments have shown repeatedly, however, that stem cell treatments developed from human embryos are not only unethical because of they necessarily taking of human life to obtain the cells, but represent serious medical dangers to patients as well. Human embryonic stem cells frequently “go wild” and form unwanted tissues or tumours.

Dr. Lanza and ACT are at the forefront of the political push to have the US government allow public funding for embryonic stem cell and cloning research and has come under fire recently for falsely claiming to have solved the embryo research controversy.
  At the end of August, ACT claimed to have developed a method of removing stem cells from embryos that does not harm the embryo. After the news – carried in the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, among many others – flashed around the world, it was revealed that the claim was false. In fact none of the 16 embryos involved in Lanza’s study, published in the journal Science, survived. All were harmed; none were viable; none were spared.

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Also in September, new research showed that adult stem cells, those obtained from the patient’s own body or from a matched donor, can improve the prognosis for children with certain types of brain cancer.

“Not only can we now cure about 70 percent of children with high-risk medulloblastoma, we can also cure more than 80 percent of those with standard-risk disease with a shorter, and therefore more convenient, chemotherapy approach,” said lead researcher Dr. Amar Gajjar, from St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, in a prepared statement.

Medulloblastoma is a virulent form of cancer that gives 30 percent to 40 percent chance of surviving to five years. Chemotherapy treatments will take up about 12 months of that time.

The new therapy, however combines stem cell treatment with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. The stem cells taken from the child before chemotherapy are implanted after each round of chemotherapy, essentially allowing the child’s body to recover from the damage caused by chemotherapy before the next round begins.

Gajjar’s team treated 134 children with medulloblastoma and the new regimen was found to increase the survival rate of affected children to about 70 percent.

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Adult stem cells were also reported this month to help patients with heart disease. A team of doctors at John Hunter Hospital in New South Wales, Australia, took stem cells from the patients suffering heart failure. Six months after the treatment, three of the ten patients in the study showed between 20 and 60 per cent improvement in their heart function.

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In IVF news, a study has shown that a significant number of couples used non-medical sex selection when opting for in vitro fertilization. Almost half of U.S. fertility clinics that offer embryo screening, allow couples to choose the sex of their child. Sex selection without any medical reason to warrant it was performed in about 9 percent of all embryo screenings last year, the survey found.

The practice of sex-selective embryo screening has been decried even by secular bioethicsts who have no moral objection to in vitro fertilization. The study showed that 42 of the clinics surveyed – a total of 415 fertility clinics, of which 190 responded – allowed the use of sex selection for non-medical reasons.

Human stem cells help blinded rats

Many U.S. Couples Seek Embryo Screening

Adult Stem cells may improve outcome of child brain cancer

Adult Stem cell treatment improves patients’ hearts

Reports of a major breakthrough in the science of stem cells were premature, and wrong.
  by Wesley J. Smith