October 2011 – Matthew Uram’s face, neck, shoulder and right arm were covered in second degree burns. At an Independence Day celebration a number of years ago, the Pennsylvania police officer was standing next to a bonfire when someone threw a cup of gasoline on it, not realizing how close Uram was to the blaze.
Four days after the incident, burn specialists declared Uram healed. According to his story, which was highlighted by National Geographic in 2008, his miracle cure came in the form of a gun that looked like it came from Star Wars.
Uram’s treatment was an experimental “skin gun” that takes a burn victim’s stem cells, mixes them with a chemical liquid and shoots the concoction directly onto the burn. The total time from skin cell biopsy to application is around 90 minutes. What would have left much scarring and taken weeks to heal by traditional treatment took four days with no noticeable difference between his old skin and new.
For years, scientists have heralded the potential of stem cell research. They have promised cures for cancer, Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments. However, the potential has been marred by ever-present controversy. To understand the issue and the controversy surrounding it, the AFA Journal consulted with Dr. David Prentice.
Dr. Prentice serves as senior fellow for life sciences with the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. He has done laboratory research for 20 years at Indiana State University of Medicine where he taught as an adjunct professor of medical and electrical genetics.
AFA Journal: What is a stem cell?
David Prentice: Stem cells have two major characteristics: when given the right signals, they can form many different tissues and they continually grow and multiply. As they multiply, they also specialize. So, if you need heart tissue, a stem cell will begin to multiply and specialize into heart tissue. If you need cells that produce insulin, you can take just a few stem cells, give them the proper signal and watch them multiply into the cells that make insulin.
AFAJ: What is the difference between adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research?
DP: I can give you the basic kernel of differences between the two in four points: Embryonic stem cells rely on the destruction of young human life, and they have not helped a single human being. Extracting adult stem cells does not harm the donor at all, and they have already helped thousands of people, from sufferers of heart disease to those who need new windpipes to children with juvenile diabetes.
AFAJ: Recently, a judge made a decision about the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. What was so important about his decision?
DP: The judge is U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth. To understand the situation, we have to go back to 1996 when Congress passed an amendment called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Basically, it said that federal taxpayer funds can’t be used for research in which an embryo is destroyed or harmed. It has been passed again by every Congress since. But in 2009, President Obama threw out the restriction, in essence providing an incentive for scientists to research embryonic stem cells. What ended up happening is that federal dollars were not used for the destruction of embryos, but they were used in the research after the embryos were destroyed using private funds.
Dr. James Sherley and Dr. Theresa Deisher, two adult stem cell researchers, sued the federal government saying it was unfair competition because more money was going to embryonic stem cell research while adult stem cell research was actually helping more patients.
At first, Justice Lamberth threw out the case saying Dr. Sherley and Dr. Deisher had no standing. They took it to the appeals court who said they did. In August 2010, Justice Lamberth issued an injunction that stopped the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. After two weeks with no funding, the Obama justice department got the appeals court to put the injunction on hold so the funds could continue to flow. In a split decision, the appeals court said they would side with the government and allow the funds to continue being used for embryonic stem cell research.
At the end of July, Justice Lamberth heard their case and agreed with the appeals court and the government. He said he would use the same linguistic jiujitsu and say that you can separate the research and use private funds for one part and federal funds for the other, basically that federal funds can’t be used for the destruction of the embryo but can be used for anything after the embryo is destroyed.
AFAJ: Is there any controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research that is not related to the fact it destroys an unborn child?
DP: Yes. One of the problems is that the cells are immature. They are like a young kid running around saying he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. Embryonic stem cells are simply hard to control and [they] like to grow. That is great for a scientist in a lab because it makes it easier to do many experiments, but you do not want to put those cells in a person. </nowiki>
The reason it is so dangerous is that they tend to do a lot of damage. Embryonic stem cells like to make tumors. If they aren’t making a tumor they may make the wrong kind of tissue or make too much of the right tissue. They did an experiment a few years ago trying to fix heart damage in mice. They got the cells to make the correct tissue, but they made five times as much tissue as the mice needed. Then they thought they fixed the problem and put the cells into the brains of rats who had Parkinson’s. A few rats got better. There is no denying that, even though it was a small percentage. But after 10 weeks they did the autopsies. They found all those cells had started to grow again.
AFAJ: With so many problems surrounding embryonic stem cell research why are so many people still pushing so hard for it?
DP: I think there are several different reasons. Unfortunately, I think the biggest two reasons are money and ideology. If a scientist doesn’t believe this young human life really counts as a human being, he has no qualms about destroying it. But it is very expensive research whether I intend to ever treat a patient or not. Many of these people, despite their public statements, are not really after cures. They’re just after keeping the money flowing so they can keep doing experiments in the lab.
AFAJ: Do you think it is fiscally responsible to use taxpayer dollars on embryonic stem cell research?
DP: Let me say this, I do not think we will ever see a return on our investment. It’s not only unethical, it is also fiscally irresponsible and scientifically unworthy. We ought to be going after the best and most promising science, especially when thinking about putting the patients first.
We know right off the bat that these cells are hard to control compared to adult stem cells. There is ample scientific research that adult stem cells are much more promising when it comes to treating spinal cord injuries, heart damage, diabetes and other diseases.
Not only is it not good science, it is old science. We aren’t being good stewards of our taxpayer money to shotgun things out even on the poorest ideas. We ought to be focusing on the stuff that is going to help taxpayers. When you look at private investors who are investing in order to get a return, their money is mostly going toward adult stem cell research that is working. That is why the embryonic stem cell folks are coming to the taxpayer at the federal and state levels and asking them to foot the bill.
AFAJ: How can people join the fight against embryonic stem cell research?
DP: Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA) plans to reintroduce his Patients First Act. The idea behind that bill is that as long as you aren’t harming any human being, we should triage our money and put it in stem cell research that is already helping patients. When that bill comes to pass, people should tell their representatives to support it.
On the state level, there is a lot of action. Everyone should contact state representatives and ask them to support legislation that puts resources toward what is going to help patients now and in the future – and that means adult stem cell research.
While the research and treatment may seem like science fiction or something out of the Star Wars movies, as a nation, the U.S. must decide on the cost it is willing to pay. Are we willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable for the potential cure? How many lives will we destroy attempting to prolong our own?
The Web site contains videos of patients who have been treated with adult stem cells and speaks to the advantages of adult stem cells over embryonic. It also contains background information about stem cell research.
This site has current news focusing on stem cell research. It also has a scoreboard showing treatments of adult vs. embryonic stem cells. The score at the time of publication is 73 for adult stem cell, 0 for embryonic.
Here Dr. Prentice closely follows the stem cell news. He has a very down-to-earth method of discussing complex issues so that any lay person can understand what is going on.
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