Scientists Still Can’t Solve Cancer Issues With Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 7, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Scientists Still Can’t Solve Cancer Issues With Embryonic Stem Cell Research

by Steven Ertelt Editor
January 7
, 2009

Washington, DC ( — In just a matter of weeks, Barack Obama may force Americans to spend millions for unproven embryonic stem cell research. Yet, scientists admit they are having significant problems overcoming one of the major hurdles that may prevent the cells from every helping human patients.

While adult stem cells have helped patients with a wide range of dozens of diseases and conditions, embryonic stem cells have yet to help one patient and have had problems in animals.

One major problem is that they tend to form cancerous cells or tumors after they are injected — and scientists have yet to stop that from happening.

A new article in Nature Reports Stem Cells highlights the work of Mickie Bhatia and colleagues at McMaster University that shows that the embryonic stem cells that look the best may perform the worst.

"When it comes to embryonic stem cells, the very qualities researchers use to pick out a robust cell line may in fact be bestowed by precancerous transformations," the article suggests.

“Current measurements are not capable of distinguishing the difference between great stem cells and cancer stem cells in vitro,” Bhatia explains.

The researchers say the problem is and can’t be determined before they transform into specific body tissues through the process called differentiation. As a result, solving the problem of tumors from embryonic stem cell injections may be difficult, if not impossible.

"Ultimately it may be difficult or impossible to rule out with certainty that a given culture is totally free of abnormal cells," Martin Pera who studies embryonic stem cells at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, admits in the Nature article.

Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith said that, if that is true, embryonic stem cells may never yield cures for patients.

"Scientists have been working on this for nearly a decade now on making embryonic stem cells capable of being used directly in therapies," he said.

"They have been stymied by three primary problems; the potential for tissue rejection the cells’ propensity to form tumors called teratomas, and the problem of some embryonic stem cells appearing to be pre-cancerous making them very risky to inject into a living patient," Smith explained.

"With regard to the latter issue, it turns out that the healthiest appearing embryonic stem cells may be the most dangerous," he said.

He said this latest news "could mean that the potential cancer threat — which is in addition to the teratoma tumor issue — may be very hard to solve."

Smith said this is another reason to look to ethical and more effective alternatives like adult stem cells.

"Umbilical cord blood stem cells can be tissue typed more readily than bone marrow and so far as I have seen, have no tumor issues," he said. "Adult stem cells do not exhibit tissue rejection (since they are the patient’s own cells), tumor formation, or cancer, and are in many early human trials for a variety of ailments."

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