Off­stage, ‘eth­i­cal’ stem-cell work ad­vances

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY DREW WIL­SON

BOS­TON | Sev­eral Mas­sachusetts firms are forg­ing ahead with am­bi­tious stem-cell re­search plans, cir­cum­vent­ing the heated de­bate over em­bry­onic re­search by us­ing other, less-con­tro­ver­sial meth­ods.

Biocell Cen­ter, a Euro­pean tech­nol­ogy firm, has opened the first am­ni­otic-fluid stem-cell bank in the United States in Med­ford, Mass., near Bos­ton. An­other Bos­ton-area biotech firm, Ad­vanced Cell Tech­nol­ogy in Worces­ter, Mass., uses a non­de­struc­tive tech­nique that in­volves work­ing with a sin­gle cell from an em­bryo in a project aimed at pre­vent­ing blind­ness.

Mas­sachusetts, which has one of the na­tion’s best-ed­u­cated work forces, has been at the cen­ter of stem-cell re­search since Gov. De­val Pa­trick’s re­cent $1 bil­lion, 10-year Life Sciences Ini­tia­tive, which was in­tended to make the state a world leader in the field. One of its first suc­cesses was the Biocell Cen­ter project, which plans to pro­vide cryo­genic stor­age of stem cells for fam­i­lies, med­i­cal cen­ters and sci­en­tists.

“This builds on our strength — a con­cen­tra­tion of brain­power, re­search, hos­pi­tals and other in­sti­tu­tions, ven­ture cap­i­tal and imagination,” Mr. Pa­trick said. “The [biotech­nol­ogy] clus­ter is help­ing to lead Mas­sachusetts out of this re­ces­sion and give hope to peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing.”

Per­haps more sig­nif­i­cant, the Biocell Cen­ter avoids the moral con­tro­versy trig­gered by em­bry­onic stem-cell re­search. The com­pany har­vests and stores stem cells from the am­ni­otic fluid sur­round­ing an un­born child in the uterus, a process that does not in­ter­fere with the fe­tus it­self.

“The [stem-cell] con­tro­versy in­volves em­bry­onic stem cells, and we are work­ing with nonem­bry­onic, so we are out of that de­bate,” said Kate Torchilin, Biocell’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

The com­pany, which has built a large stem-cell bank in Europe, col­lects sam­ples only from women who un­dergo am­nio­cen­te­sis, a pre­na­tal pro­ce­dure that re­quires the re­moval of a small amount of am­ni­otic fluid to test for spe­cific birth de­fects. A sam­ple from the ex­tracted fluid, which is nor­mally dis­carded, goes to Biocell for iso­la­tion and stor­age if the mother re­quests it.

The pre­served cells can po­ten­tially be used in the fu­ture to re­pair tis­sue or treat dis­eases. Be­cause they are from the in­di­vid­ual’s own am­ni­otic fluid, the risk of re­jec­tion by the body is min­i­mized.

“Stem cells are present and pow­er­ful in the sec­ond trimester of preg­nancy, and we have a chance to col­lect a sam­ple without in­ter­fer­ing with the nor­mal course of clin­i­cal care,” Ms. Torchilin said.

Am­ni­otic-fluid stem cells un- der­score the ad­vances in so­called “eth­i­cal” stem cells, which hold the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tion­ize med­i­cal treat­ment without be­ing con­tentious. Yet re­ports of progress in this area tend to stay out of the spot­light.

Mas­sachusetts al­ready has sev­eral stor­age fa­cil­i­ties for stem “We des­per­ately need big clin­i­cal suc­cess.”

Stem cells hold the po­ten­tial to be­come a re­pair kit for the hu­man body, as well as a way to treat a long list of de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­eases, in­clud­ing Alzheimer’s, di­a­betes and heart dis­ease.

Var­i­ous types of stem-cell re-

Biocell Cen­ter, which has built a large stem-cell bank in Europe, col­lects sam­ples only from women who un­dergo am­nio­cen­te­sis, a pre­na­tal pro­ce­dure that re­quires the re­moval of a small amount of am­ni­otic fluid to test for spe­cific birth de­fects. A sam­ple from the ex­tracted fluid, which is nor­mally dis­carded, goes to Biocell for iso­la­tion and stor­age if the mother re­quests it. The preser ved cells can po­ten­tially be used in the fu­ture to re­pair tis­sue or treat dis­eases. Be­cause they are from the in­di­vid­ual’s own am­ni­otic fluid, the risk of re­jec­tion by the body is min­i­mized.

cells de­rived from um­bil­i­cal­cord blood, which of­fer a nat­u­ral, con­tro­versy-free method of ac­quir­ing stem cells, said Lucy Bayer-Zwirello, chief of ma­ter­nal-fe­tal medicine at St. El­iz­a­beth’s Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bos­ton.

Ad­vanced Cell Tech­nol­ogy is cur­rently ap­ply­ing to the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion to start hu­man tri­als to pre­vent blind­ness with a sin­gle stem cell taken from an em­bryo without harm­ing it. The com­pany is tar­get­ing mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion and has had com­plete suc­cess in an­i­mal tri­als, said Robert Lanza, ACT’s chief sci­en­tific of­fi­cer.

“We took one cell and let the re­main­ing em­bryo de­velop with no harm,” Mr. Lanza said. “We know how to rou­tinely gen­er­ate stem-cell lines without harm­ing or de­stroy­ing the em­bryos.

“This may be the first hu­man em­bry­onic stem-cell ther­apy in pa­tients, ever,” Mr. Lanza said. search ex­ist. Em­bry­onic, fe­tal, in­duced pluripo­tent (adult stem cells re­gressed to an em­bry­onic state) and adult are the main types, each with its own lim­i­ta­tions.

“This is not a one-size-fit­sall,” Mr. Lanza said. “There will be a com­bi­na­tion of ap­proaches de­pend­ing on the dis­ease.”

Pub­lic de­bate specif­i­cally tar­gets em­bry­onic stem-cell re­search. Th­ese stem cells are prim­i­tive and po­tent, thus of­fer­ing the great­est prom­ise be­cause they are able to be­come vir­tu­ally any cell in the hu­man body.

But the usual process of har­vest­ing the stem cells de­stroys the hu­man em­bryo (or hu­man clones), a prac­tice con­demned as im­moral by many re­li­gious and con­ser­va­tive groups. In 2001, Pres­i­dent Bush pro­hib­ited fed­eral fund­ing for re­search into new em­bry­onic stem-cell lines, though he did not ban fund­ing for the ex­ist­ing 21 lines.

The fund­ing ban was seen as a pro­found set­back in U.S. stem­cell re­search by many sci­en­tists. Sev­eral states, in­clud­ing Mas­sachusetts, re­sponded by pass­ing laws to per­mit hu­man em­bry­onic stem-cell re­search us­ing state funds.

In March, Pres­i­dent Obama lifted re­stric­tions on fed­eral fund­ing for re­search on new stem-cell lines.

The Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health has is­sued guide­lines that al­low fed­er­ally funded re­search on stem cells de­rived from em­bryos specif­i­cally do­nated for that pur­pose by fer­til­ity clinic pa­tients. The NIH re­ceived $10.4 bil­lion in stim­u­lus funds and in­tends to fund ad­di­tional em­bry­onic re­search un­der its new guide­lines.

Op­po­si­tion to em­bry­onic stem-cell work re­mains, but most groups dis­tin­guish it from other stem-cell work.

“We en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­port all av­enues of stem-cell re­search that do not re­quire the de­struc­tion of hu­man life and that do not re­quire the cre­ation of new hu­man life by cloning to pro­duce em­bryos to be de­stroyed in re­search,” said Gene Tarne, spokesman for Do No Harm, the Coali­tion of Amer­i­cans for Re­search Ethics, based in Wash­ing­ton.

Em­bry­onic stem cells have spe­cific-use draw­backs as well. They have not yet yielded treat­ments ap­proved for the mar­ket, and they can also pro­duce ge­netic ab­nor­mal­ity.

“Em­bry­onic stem cells oc­ca­sion­ally form tu­mors when they grow,” said Ms. Torchilin, from Biocell Cen­ter. “Data from our com­pany shows that am­ni­oticfluid stem cells re­main healthy.”

Re­search on non-con­tro­ver­sial stem cells is pro­duc­ing dra­matic re­sults that are vir­tu­ally un­known to the pub­lic, said Jean Pe­duzzi-Nel­son, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Michi­gan’s Wayne State Uni­ver­sity, who is in­volved with stem cell work on spinal-cord in­jury.

She de­scribed a re­cent Euro­pean trial of adult stem-cell ther­apy com­bined with in­tense re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion that al­lowed a quad­ri­plegic pa­tient to walk us­ing a walker.

“Th­ese are fan­tas­tic re­sults that most peo­ple don’t know about,” Ms. Pe­duzzi-Nel­son said. “It’s a si­lent ex­plo­sion in the med­i­cal field.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Do no harm: Stem cell cul­ture

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