Forbes & Prentice: Stem-Cell Health Care Must Put the Patients First

Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:43pm

As spiraling health care costs increase and public debate over health care collide in the headlines, it’s time to question the value that Americans have received for their tax dollar investment in some medical research. Specifically, how are health dollars being allocated regarding actual promising treatments for patients versus speculative, controversial research?

Last March, President Barack Obama opened more taxpayer funding for stem-cell research and authorized use of virtually any embryonic stem cells for research. As a result, the National Institutes of Health has approved 43 new embryonic stem-cell lines for taxpayer-funded experiments, but that is not necessarily good news for sick people.

The only approved experiment for embryonic stem-cell injections into humans, for newly injured spinal cord patients, is on hold by the Food and Drug Administration because of safety concerns. Those concerns include the fact that in animal experiments, embryonic stem cells can lead to cancer or misplaced tissue formation. These are not minor side effects, but potentially fatal in their own right.

In the meantime, noncontroversial adult stem cells from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and other tissues are treating thousands of patients around the globe right now. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 adult stem-cell transplants occur annually worldwide.

Virginia has seen more than 2,500 patients treated with adult stem cells, while Illinois records show more than 10,000 patients treated. The majority of current stem-cell transplants treat anemias, leukemias and other cancers and solid tumors in adults and children. For some diseases, adult stem-cell transplants have become the “standard of care,” meaning the treatments are so effective that they are a doctor’s best choice for sick patients.

But the realization is growing that adult stem cells can treat much more than blood diseases and cancer. Published science now shows evidence for a wide range of applications, with examples of success at improving the health of patients with more than 70 different diseases and injuries. Adult stem cells are already helping many people.

People like Laura Dominguez. Quadriplegic after a car accident, Laura was treated for spinal cord injury with her own nasal adult stem cells, and she has regained movement and sensation in her lower body. Laura continues to work hard at her physical therapy, bluntly stating, “I’m going to walk again.” You can see Laura’s story and others at stemcellresearchfacts.org.

People like Amy Daniels. A young mother of two, Amy was told she had a fatal condition called scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that turns organs and tissues to stone. She wrote a letter to her husband telling him it was OK to move on after she died. But Amy has thrown away that letter, because after treatment with her own bone marrow adult stem cells, she lives a normal life.

People like Barry Goudy. With his multiple sclerosis worsening, Barry faced life in a wheelchair. Yet six and a half years after his adult stem-cell transplant, Barry is fully active and coaches a hockey team.

People like Jaider Abbud. Newly diagnosed with Type I diabetes, Jaider was facing a lifetime of blood glucose checks and insulin shots. Using his own bone marrow adult stem cells to “reboot” his immune system means Jaider takes no medications whatsoever now.

People like Doug Rice. After his doctor told him his heart attacks had damaged his heart so badly that he only had a short time to live, Doug sought out a therapy that injected his own adult stem cells into his heart, helping it rebuild damaged muscle. The ex-Marine now can’t stop telling others how his life was saved.

These are just a few of the thousands who have already been helped by adult stem cells. Clinical trials are ongoing to improve current adult stem-cell treatments and develop others. In Virginia, more than 70 adult stem-cell-related FDA-approved clinical trials are taking place now or already completed. In Illinois, the number of such trials is above 200, with nearly 2,000 adult stem-cell trials worldwide.

But much more needs to be done, and many more resources need to be focused on patients using these life-saving possibilities. The federal government has spent more than half a billion dollars on human embryonic stem-cell research since 2002, and funding for this controversial research has increased more than 40 percent since 2008. Meanwhile, funding for human adult stem-cell research, much of which is invested in the clinical trials for patients that we mentioned, increased only 20 percent during that same time period.

We propose a focus on those who need these treatments and that funding. The Forbes-Lipinski bill, the Patients First Act (H.R. 877), would prioritize stem-cell funding for projects that have the greatest chance for near-term benefit for patients, based on the scientific evidence.

There’s no controversy in treatments that work and help people now. It’s time to set aside debate and controversy and come together to concentrate on real health care that puts the patients first. It’s not just tax dollars that are wasted on poor science; real lives are being lost.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R) is in his fifth term representing the 4th district of Virginia. Dr. David Prentice, Ph.D., who spent 20 years as a university researcher and professor, is senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council.