Opinion

Stem cell clinics thrive overseas

Stem cells – basic cells that can differentiate into many types of specialized cells – are at the center of medical research and ongoing controversy. The cells, found in virtually all multi-cellular organisms, exist in two forms: embryonic and adult. The former is found in developing eggs (called blastocysts), while the latter (in mammals) can be found in bone marrow or in the blood of the umbilical cord.

However, both stem cells have similar properties. All stem cells can split into other unspecialized cells (this is called self-renewal) and divide into specialized cells (this is called potency). All 220 types of cells in the human body are derived from these progenitor cells. These properties, especially potency, are important in the treatment of seemingly irreversible disorders and injuries. Already hospitals and clinics around the world use a variety of therapies to reverse diseases like type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and various forms of cancer.

However, the way embryonic stem cells are extracted has sparked national debate. In order to obtain these unspecialized progenitors, doctors must remove key cells from human embryos, ultimately killing the embryos. This process has crossed, for some, moral and religious boundaries because some of these embryos are obtained through abortions. Because of the stem cell’s association with abortion, the pro-life movement stands in the way of further stem cell research. Many states – like Texas, Ohio and, until recently, Michigan – have banned all stem cell research despite its potential to cure or relieve irreparable diseases.

Americans suffering from maladies have been forced to search for therapies elsewhere. One man who was recently interviewed by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel travels twice a year from his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., to receive therapy in Moscow, Russia. The trip is not cheap; each visit costs about $12,000. Yet this person is not alone. Thousands of people from the United States and European nations now turn to Russia, China, and other countries where stem cell research takes place without restriction. Neurovita, the Russian stem cell magnate, actually has a waiting list for overflow patients from around the world.

Surprisingly, though, a growing number of clinics in the United States are accepting adult stem cells. Taken from the patient’s bone marrow, studies involving rats with Parkinson’s disease have shown the cells have the potential to differentiate into nerve cells and blood cells. Even weak heart muscle tissue can now be replaced.

However, until the Food and Drug Administration approves these applications of stem cells, the issue will remain behind closed doors.

November 19, 2008

Reporters

Andrew Blitman

Science Columnist


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