Amniotic Stem Cells Could Alter Embryonic Stem Cell Research Debate

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 8, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

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by Steven Ertelt
LifeNews.com Editor
January 8
, 2007

Winston Salem, NC (LifeNews.com) — Scientists have been able to successfully manipulate stem cells found in the amniotic fluid of a pregnant woman that have many properties of embryonic stem cells. The finding could alter the debate on the controversial research by giving scientists another source of cells that don’t involve the destruction of human life to obtain.

Researchers from Wake Forest University say the amniotic cells have the ability to grow into brain, muscle, fat, bone, and other tissues and could be used to treat a plethora of diseases and medical conditions.

The cells are shed into the fluid by the developing unborn child and can easily be retrieved during prenatal testing the scientists said.

Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine told the Washington Post, "They grow fast, as fast as embryonic stem cells, and they show great pluripotentiality," which means they can become various types of tissues.

They are also easier to maintain in a laboratory than embryonic stem cells and don’t pose some of the same transplant concerns that embryonic stem cells do. The embryonic cells, which can only be obtained by destroying a days-old unborn child, have caused tumors when injected into animals in experiments.

Atala told the Post the cells "remain stable for years without forming tumors."

He also explained that the amniotic stem cells are neither adult nor embryonic but something in-between that has some of the properties of both.

Because the amniotic stem cells are a genetic match to the unborn baby then tissue grown in a lab from them will not be rejected if used to treat medical problems the child has, the Wake Forest scientists explained.

The cells could also be frozen and used in later life for medical problems uncovered in the future.

The scientists were also about to obtain the amniotic stem cells from prenatal chorioni villius biopsies, procedures used on older women to determine whether an unborn baby has problems such as Down syndrome.

Atala also said that the amniotic cells are so easy to obtain that they could produce thousands of stem cells lines in the lab and there would be enough to satisfy the stem cell needs of virtually every American.

"If you banked 100,000 specimens, you’d be able to provide cells for 99% of the U.S. population with a perfect match for genetic transplantation," Atala says.

Despite the discovery, the head of one biotech firm that has been criticized for misstating the results of a study supposedly showing an ethical method of obtaining embryonic stem cells says those controversial cells will still be needed.
"There’s not going to be one shoe that fits all," Robert Lanza, scientific director at Advanced Cell Technology, told the Post. "We’re going to have to see which ones are most useful for which clinical conditions."

However, pro-life advocates celebrated the findings.

"This is wonderful news," said Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It doesn’t require harming anyone or destroying life at any stage."

Dr. David Prentice, a senior fellow in life sciences at the Family Research Council and a former Indiana State University science professor, says the amniotic stem cells comes without the "ethical baggage."

However, he also said he doesn’t expect advocates of forcing taxpayers to fund embryonic stem cell research to back down.

"I don’t think we’re going to see much difference in the rhetoric that both sides will be putting out," he told Newsweek. But, he adds, "people are becoming more aware that there is another way to get to what we’re all after: helping patients, without the ethical concerns and without the bickering."

Scientists have studied these amniotic stem cells for several years but the paper is the first to thoroughly explain their potential.

The Wake Forest scientists published information about their work in yesterday’s online edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology.