Though One Study Doubted, Adult Stem Cell Research Still as Effective

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 25, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Though One Study Doubted, Adult Stem Cell Research Still as Effective Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
February 25
, 2007

Minneapolis, MN ( — Media outlets over the weekend trumpeted a new analysis of an old study about adult stem cells that says they show similar promise as embryonic stem cells.

Though the analysis places possible doubts on one study, many others show that adult stem cells and germ cells can be just as effective as embryonic stem cells without the moral problems of destroying human beings for research purposes.

A panel of experts commissioned by the University of Minnesota examined 2002 research by Catherine Verfaillie saying that adult stem cells taken from bone marrow can grow into an assortment of tissues that can be used in treatments.

According to an AP report, the panel said that the study was "significantly flawed, and that the interpretations based on these data, expressed in the manuscript, are potentially incorrect." It did not say whether the conclusions were wrong, only that they may possibly be invalid.

Verfaillie, who has acknowledged that parts of the study use some incorrect data but says the conclusions the study drew are still valid.

"From her perspective, the findings stand. I think the scientific community will have to make their own opinion," Tim Mulcahy, vice president of research at UM, told the Associated Press.

The cells Verfaillie used are called multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) and she discovered them in 2001. Some scientists hailed them as a possible alternative to embryonic stem cells and a way to eliminate the debate about the use of those controversial cells, which can only be obtained by destroying human life.

Dr. Verfaillie has conducted more recent studies involving the cells, and one was published in the January 2007 edition of the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

It showed that adult stem cells taken from bone marrow can replenish immune systems ravaged by radiation. They found the bone marrow cells can also make brain and liver cells in mice.

Dr. Irv Weissman, a Stanford University researcher who previously voiced skepticism, co-authored the new study with Verfaillie and said it’s "remarkable that [MAPCs] can give rise to blood cells.”

The study follows on the heels of news that scientists have been able to successfully manipulate stem cells found in amniotic fluid. Like the MAPCs, the amniotic cells have similar potential to embryonic stem cells.

Researchers at Wake Forest University and Harvard University found the cells have the potential to grow into brain, muscle and other tissues without the resulting threat of tumors.

Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, reported that stem cells in the amniotic fluid that fills the sac surrounding the fetus may be just as versatile as embryonic stem cells. At the same time they maintain all the advantages that have made adult stem cells such a success.

Atala’s new amniotic stem cells grow as fast outside the body as embryonic stem cells (doubling every 36 hours), and he’s now been growing the same cell line for two years, with no indication of slowing.

But other studies have shown similar results to Verfaillie’s.

Researchers at Tufts University in February 2005 said they used specialized cell-sorting machines to obtain different types of adult stem cells from the bone marrow of three donors. They turned out to be MAPCs.

Tests on the cells showed that they appear to be capable of changing into the many varied types of cells that make up the human body — a potential that has some scientists saying embryonic stem cells should be used despite the destruction of human life.

Once inserted, some of the cells became new heart muscle and tissue, as adult stem cells have done before in numerous successful experiments. However, the cells also turned into new blood vessels to support the ailing hearts.

That’s exciting news to Douglas Losordo, the Tufts cardiologist who headed up the research team. They wrote about their discovery in the February 2005 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

"I think embryonic stem cells are going to fade in the rearview mirror of adult stem cells," Losordo said at the time.

Adult stem cells cure and treat more 70 diseases and are involved in almost 1,300 human clinical trials. Meanwhile, there are currently no practical applications for embryonic stem cells and there been a single clinical trial involving them.