Stem Cell Update

Researchers in both the USA and Germany claim to have produced embryonic-like stem cells from testicular cells. The Germans published the results of their work on mice in Nature last week; the Americans claimed to have done similar things with human testes (ouch), but have not published in a peer-reviewed journal, but rather presented it at a conference. The group that did the work in America is also studying similar work on ovaries.

Presumably these cells can be entirely legitimate from a Catholic bioethical standpoint, provided that the germ cell (i.e., testicular or ovarian tissue) material is donated and procured in an ethical manner (which can get complicated, but we’ll leave that for another entry). The problem with embryonic research to date is that the process involves killing or harming human embryos, and perhaps involves involves cloning to boot. Since this embryonic-like cells are taken from adult donors, this intrinsic stumbling-block is removed.

In addition to avoiding that big ethical issue, this technique, if it works, would also avoid some serious technical barriers facing embryonic stem cells. If you give a patient stem cells derived from an embryo, you must either try to create a cloned embryo or else face the risk of tissue rejection. Human cloning has yet to done, now that Dr. Hwang was exposed as a fraud, and any therapy that involves such a concept faces quite a few issues with expense, technical validation, etc.

In other news, Geron Corporation, which holds the rights to the original human embryonic stem cell lines that Dr. Thompson derived at the University of Wisconsin Madison (thus sparking this whole debate) is preparing to launch a clinical trial of human embryonic stell cells on human patients–and just to clarify, unlike the embryonic-like stem cells that I mentioned above, these ones are derived from destroyed human embryos. I believe that this is the first such trial to happen in the USA in several years–in the last trial on Parkinsons Disease patients, the subjects’ symptoms got worse after getting the cells.

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