Stem Cells More Effective Than Those From Aborted Babies

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - New research in the UK has raised further hope that stem cells can be used to repair the damage caused by strokes to brain cells, British scientists heard Monday.

Experiments carried out on rats indicate that transplants of stem cells - the "building blocks" of bodily tissue - can help stroke victims regain movement, senses and understanding.

They also show that the cells were more effective than cells from aborted babies, which have been at the center of a recent scare involving the treatment of patients with Parkinson's disease.

The researchers are presenting their findings Monday to the British Neuroscience Association's annual conference in northern England, and published them in the Stroke Journal.

The potential of stem cells to develop and translate into other types of cells has excited scientists worldwide, raising hopes they may be able to help undo the damage of strokes and help cure degenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

But the issue has also raised controversy, primarily in that many researchers want to harvest stem cells from human embryos, believing them to offer the greatest benefits. Other specialists argue that "adult stem cells" - taken for example from umbilical cords - offer an effective, and ethical alternative.

The use of embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells alarms pro-lifers.

The early-stage human beings are destroyed after the stem cells have been removed. Adding to the debate is the recent approval by the UK government of cloning of human embryos for this limited purpose. An Italian scientist has already announced his intention to clone a human being within a year.

When a person has a stroke, blood supply is cut off from areas of brain tissue, leading to the loss of many mature cells, and often leaving the patient unable to control his or her movements.

The new study, by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and a biotechnology company, showed that transplanted stem cells made their way to whichever area of the damaged brain needed repair.

The cells also appeared to boost the production of an important protein that usually increases after a stroke as the brain attempts to heal itself, helping to connect damaged and undamaged parts of the organ.

The experimental rats' movement and cognitive abilities improved after the introduction of the stem cells, the researchers found.

The movement of stem cells to the damaged area of the brain differs from the behavior of fetal stem cells, which they say remain in one place when transplanted.

Scientists in the United States have been injecting cells from aborted babies into the brains of Parkinson's patients, but it was reported in early March that the experiment was being abandoned after side-effects described as "absolutely devastating" were observed.

"We expect that stem cells will prove far safer and more flexible for repair of brain damage than primary fetal cells," research leader Dr. Helen Hodges was quoted as saying.

"They are not likely to worsen symptoms, as recently reported in elderly Parkinson patients."

The British study comes in the wake of an earlier one by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, which came to similar conclusions, as did another last year by the Institute for Stem Cell Research in Milan, Italy.

Researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa have also found that stem cells from the tiny amount of blood found in the umbilical cords of newborn babies may be able to help repair damaged brain tissue after a stroke.

The research has provided further weight to arguments that adult stem cells may hold sufficient potential to make it unnecessary to use embryonic cells - or to use therapeutic research as justification to allow embryonic cloning.

Some scientists continue to assert that the use and efficacy of embryonic cells should be fully explored before being discarded.

They also argue that the cloning of an embryo is the best way to obtain a perfect match for the patient from whose DNA the clone was manufactured.

See also:
Bush Asked To Back 'Save All Stem Cells' Drive (March 23, 2001)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow