Stem-Cell Research Has Options

Like many Americans, I have been following the recent developments in the progress of stem-cell research. For the record, I am for stem-cell research, and understand that one of the great challenges of our era is striking a balance between pursuing new science and technology and maintaining the ethical and moral principles that are so crucial to the fabric of a healthy society. In no arena is this challenge illustrated more appropriately than when discussing this type of research.

Scientists who are pushing for embryonic stem-cell research are seeking pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to form all or almost all types of cells in the human body and aid in the understanding and treatment of disease. In 2001, President Bush formed the President’s Council on Bioethics, made up of scientists and ethicists to study the moral and scientific issues before us today. With the council’s recommendations in mind, I have been working to develop a bill that will provide funding for research to explore potential methods of creating pluripotent stem cells without creating or destroying embryos. In this way, scientists are able to pursue progress without abandoning principle.

Although supporters of unlimited research on stem cells rarely acknowledge the existence of alternate sources of pluripotent cells, these cells can come from a variety of places. Cells that can be coaxed into developing into other tissue types reside in the tissues and organs of every one of us and are known as adult stem cells. Under normal conditions, adult stem cells serve to maintain and heal our bodies and have been identified in muscle, fat, the intestines and even the brain.

So this begs the question: Why are these cells so often overlooked in favor of embryonic stem cells? Critics of adult stem cells contend that they are not as useful as embryonic stem cells because they already are on their way toward becoming a certain kind of tissue. This notion, however, is being eroded by new research.

For example, Dr. Johnny Huard, of the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative in my home state of Pennsylvania, has coaxed adult stem cells from muscle to become blood cells, nerve cells, cartilage cells and cardiac cells. Recently, Huard showed that adult stem cells from muscle can be laboratory-grown in large numbers while retaining their therapeutic potential, just as embryonic stem cells can be, thus dispelling the myth that adult stem cells cannot be multiplied to numbers large enough to be useful as a clinical treatment. This is a major breakthrough.

Adult stem cells also have a built-in advantage that does not exist in embryonic stem cells. An argument used by proponents of therapeutic cloning is that the resulting embryonic stem cells are genetically matched to the patient. Adult stem cells, isolated from the same patient who receives them therapeutically, carry virtually zero risk of being rejected. Equally important, they do not carry the serious moral implications that come with cloning or embryonic stem-cell research.

Additionally, adult stem cells, derived not from embryos but from cognizant, consenting sources, already have been used clinically. In fact, they have been used therapeutically for decades in the form of bone marrow transplants. This is in contrast to embryonic stem cells, which have never been successfully used in clinical applications with human patients — in truth, the biomedical potential of embryonic stem cells remains speculative.

Yes, there is potential in embryonic stem cells, and I am willing to support exploring that potential in an ethical manner. But there have been a number of therapeutic successes involving alternative sources of pluripotent cells, and the resources of the federal government should not be diverted from continuing research that already is producing results in favor of promise that is, as of now, unfulfilled. I have long supported programs such as the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative, to which I’ve helped secure $8.25 million in research appropriations in the past five years, because I believe in delivering real therapies to patients that need help now. That is exactly what scientists working with adult stem cells have been able to do.

Dr. Amit Patel of the McGowan Institute has restored strength to more than 100 patients with heart failure by injecting their own bone marrow-derived stem cells into their heart muscle. Heart disease and heart failure are among the most deadly medical conditions we face today, and there are never enough donor hearts available for the patients who need them. When this therapy becomes widely available it will treat many patients who would otherwise require heart transplantation, increasing the number of donor organs available.

This is just one example of an ethical and viable way to treat patients and cure diseases using adult stem cells that is in existence today. Dr. Stephen Badylak is developing a treatment for regenerating the trachea and esophagus using adult stem cells that has had great success in preclinical trials. Dr. Jörg Gerlach has developed an artificial liver that uses adult stem cells. The list goes on and on. Without question, this type of research that has proved successful and everyone agrees is ethical should receive federal funding before we spend taxpayer dollars to destroy human embryos, a practice many Americans find troubling.

A commitment to curing disease, promoting scientific progress and respect for life are not mutually exclusive. I support the scientific community in pursuing life-saving research and share many of its goals — there are few things in this world that would have a more profound impact on the quality of our lives than finding cures for some of our most debilitating diseases. As elected officials, we have a responsibility to support the scientific community in its efforts to develop new technologies that will advance our medical capabilities. However, it is equally important that our scientists pursue these goals in an ethical way that does not undermine the dignity of human life. Adult stem-cell research fulfills both of these criteria, and Congress should focus its attention and resources on further developing these viable, promising therapies.

Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) is the Republican Conference chairman.