A re-energized debate on stem cells

Dec. 1, 2008

sing stem-cell science and tissue engineering from doctors in England,
Spanish surgeons transplanted a new trachea made from stems cells
removed from her own bone-marrow into a tuberculosis (TB) patient. News
reports in mid-November claimed the operation made medical history since
the process alleviated the need for antirejection medications. The
30-year-old female patient had TB for years and suffered a collapsed
lung in March of this year.

While her medical team considered removing the lung,
one of them suggested a windpipe transplant. The solution entailed stripping
with strong chemical and enzymes all of the cells of a donor windpipe,
leaving a tube of connective tissue — a process done in Padua, Italy. The
English team of doctors extricated the patient’s bone-marrow from her hip
(as well as cells from her damaged left bronchus) and used the extracted
cells to grow cartilage and tissue cells. Italian experts in Milan placed
the new cartilage and tissue onto the donor windpipe.

Surgeon Professor Paolo Macchiarini from Barcelona’s
Hospital Clinic told BBC News, “I was very much afraid. Before this, we had
been doing this work only in pigs.” The actual surgical procedure was
performed several months prior to its revelation in a recent edition of the
online publication of Lancet. This accomplishment demonstrates,
according to Dr. Rob Buckle who commented in the Telegraph.co.uk,
“the huge potential of regenerative medicine.” He also suggests that “this
does not spell the end of embryonic stem-cell research; different
applications require varying approaches.”

Buckle’s sentiments included his claim that the
United Kingdom holds the leading position in the field of stem-cell
research; however, the changing of the American political guard in coming
weeks means that a number of issues will be moved to the forefront, and
stem-cell research is primary among those issues. The current federal ban on
stem-cell research has left the United States well behind other countries in
the scientific pursuit of stem-cell knowledge and products.1 The
U.S. Senate voted in July to remove restrictions on embryonic stem-cell
research, but President George W. Bush vetoed the legislation the following

The topic of stem-cell research was, in some regions
of the United States, a matter recently put to the vote. In Michigan, voters
passed Proposition 2, allowing new embryonic stem-cell lines to be derived
from embryos that have been created for fertility treatment purposes. The
embryos affected by the amendment would, otherwise, be discarded unless
donated with informed consent. Voters in Colorado rejected their “Amendment
49,” which would have declared a fertilized egg a person with legal rights.
That amendment, if passed, could have resulted in a ban on abortions,
stem-cell research, and some reproductive health services. 1

One American scientist who left the United States for
British Columbia now heads a leukemia and bone-marrow transplant program
there. There are incredible opportunities in Canada, he told Canada.com,
and he wondered if other American doctors currently working in Canada would
return to the States if the new administration succeeds in gaining support
and funding for such research.3 In the scientific community, many
supporters of embryonic stem-cell research point to its potential for
finding cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s2 multiple sclerosis,
diabetes, blindness, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, spinal-cord injuries,
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease), and muscle damage,
among other impairments and conditions.4,5

Meanwhile, the Stem Cell Network, a non-profit
corporation headquartered at the University of Ottawa — made up of more than
350 scientists, doctors, engineers, and ethicists from universities and
hospitals across Canada — is investigating the potential of stem cells.3
At its 2008 conference, network members learned that scientists at the
British Columbia Cancer Agency have $1.2 million to conduct a new study on
the use of umbilical cord blood as a source for stem-cell transplants in
adults with various blood cancers. The study will address the problem that
typical cord blood does not contain enough stem cells to restore
blood formation and immune-system functioning in many adult patients.3

Louise Townsend is a Florida-based writer who
formerly specialized in legislative issues for a major Washington, DC,
pharmaceutical association.


  1. Roan S. Booster Shots. Los Angeles Times.

    Accessed November 12, 2008.
  2. Owen R. Vatican fires off warning to Barack
    Obama over stem cell research. TimesONLINE.

    Accessed November 12, 2008.
  3. Fayerman P. Obama’s win a victory for science:
    stem-cell researchers: Seeing the results like watching Berlin Wall
    fall, one hematologists says. Canada.com.

    Accessed November 12, 2008.
  4. Lindvall O. Stem cells for cell therapy in
    Parkinson’s disease. Pharmacol Res. 47(4); 2003:279-287.
  5. Goldman S, Windrem M. Cell replacement therapy in
    neurological disease. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 361(1473);
The beginning of stem-cell history

In 1908 at the Congress of Hematologic Society in
Berlin, the Russian histologist and lecturer Alexander Maksimov proposed
the term “stem cell” for scientific use. In the winter of 2000, the
Johns Hopkins University Press published Igor E. Konstantinov’s article,
“In Search of Alexander A. Maximov: The Man Behind the Unitarian Theory
of Hematopoiesis,” in its journal Perspectives in Biology and
(Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 269-276). According to Konstantinov’s
research, Maximov (1874-1928) was an “outstanding scientist who
developed and introduced a unitarian theory of hematopoiesis, a theory
upon which our present concept of blood cells’ origin and
differentiation is based.” He also wrote what has been described by
scholars as “the world’s most respected textbook in histology.” The
book, which ran to 12 editions, became a standard text for generations
of medical students. A Russian aristocrat, Maximov spoke fluent English,
German, French, and Russian; as an artist drew beautifully and
precisely; and climbed mountains as part of his exploration of the
world. Not until the 1960s, when scientific evidence — presented by
Joseph Altman and Gopal Das contradicting popular belief — showed
ongoing stem-cell activity in the brain, was there any notable stem-cell
research event recorded.