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scientists comment on new stem cell research

The research, published online by Nature, found that adult stem cells could behave more like embryonic stem cells, and that embryonic cells offered a potential route for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Dr David T. Dexter, Senior lecturer in the Neuroscience Division of Imperial College of Science Technology & Medicine, London, said:

“These two studies are a major step forward into whether stem cells can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Using adult stem cells overcomes the ethical issues of using foetal tissue and this report does seem to demonstrate their versatility, although they have yet to be tried in the animal model of Parkinson’s disease.

“Previously, foetal cells transplanted into animal models of Parkinson’s disease have had beneficial effects but proved rather disappointing in human transplants, so we should be cautious when looking at this data. Even if stem cells do prove beneficial, the transplantation procedures are complex, potentially risky and not suitable for all patients. It’s exciting news but must be treated with some caution.”

A spokesperson for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said:

“We think this research is important and exciting and we’re watching developments in this area very closely. However the HFEA remains of the view that embryonic stem cell research work is important and see no reason to alter existing HFEA policies and procedures in licensing stem cell work on the basis of one published paper.”

Professor Christopher Higgins, Director of the Medical Research Council Clinical Services Centre, said:

“This is a very interesting study but like all good science it raises more questions than it answers. It does suggest that these specific adult stem cells might eventually be suitable for treatments of some diseases, which is a very exciting possibility. But we have no idea yet whether this promise can be turned into reality. There is an urgent need for more research on all stem cells – adult and embryonic – to discover which types of stem cell are likely to provide the safest and most effective ways to treat common illnesses like Parkinson’s and diabetes.”

Professor Tom Kirkwood of the Department of Gerontology at Newcastle University, said:

“These are very exciting reports. We really need to understand just how versatile adult stem cells can be, and whether embryonic or adult stem cells can transform correctly when put into adult tissue, particularly the damaged tissue found in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

“The trouble is that we already have some evidence that stem cells, particularly adult cells, can pick up DNA faults similar to those that occur with ageing. The quality of the cells’ genetic information – and the risk posed by damaged cells – is something to be considered very seriously before arriving at effective medical treatments.”

Professor Richard Gardner, Department of Zoology at Oxford University and Chair of the Royal Society committee on Stem Cell Research, said:

“The new work on using embryonic stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease is a very promising advance. Looking at all the current evidence, it’s impossible to decide whether adult or embryonic stem cells will ultimately prove more successful in treating disease. Adult cells may be better for some jobs, embryonic cells for others – we simply can’t tell yet, and there are downsides to both technologies. For the moment, we must pursue both lines of research.

“The concern raised by recent work is that adult stem cells acquire their versatility through fusion with other cells, which could make them too dangerous for grafting into patients.”

Dr Tom Shakespeare of Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences at the Newcastle Centre for Life, said:

“The recent furore over embryonic stem cells has rather distorted the debate on this new science. Proponents of embryonic stem cell research in the States, anxious to secure legal and moral approval of their research against a conservative backlash in Congress, have been ‘spinning’ against adult stem cell research.

“The latest research shows that adult stem cell research has real possibilities, and will be welcome to those who want a balanced and mature debate about stem cell research. There is a real alternative to embryonic stem cell work for those who have ethical objections.”

Tom Baldwin, Professor of Philosophy at York University and member of HFEA, said:

“This is exciting news about the potential of adult stem cells. The long-term hope in this area is that it will be possible to devise methods of treatment which use only a patient’s own stem cells so that we can by-pass the problems which arise when stem cells from someone else are used. Research showing that certain adult stem cells can be persuaded to behave like embryonic stem cells is really welcome.

“But it is much too early to conclude that research involving embryonic stem cells is unwarranted. As the other research on mice indicates, there is much fundamental knowledge to be obtained in this area and it remains likely that some of this can be obtained only by starting from human embryonic stem cells. Nonetheless both pieces of research indicate that there may be less need to use human embryonic stem cells in research than has been anticipated.”

John Gillott, spokesperson for the Genetic Interest Group, that represents people with genetic disorders, said:

“It would be a shame if, once again, this is turned into an adult versus embryonic stem cell argument by those with objections to embryonic stem cell work. In fact, it simply reinforces the importance of pursuing all lines of research in this area.”

The Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, said:

“The House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research was highly aware of the promising research on adult stem cells and recommended that more funding be put into that area. I therefore very much welcome further evidence of what adult stem cells might have to offer in the way of therapy. Nevertheless, fundamental research on embryonic stem cells is still necessary in order to understand the processes involved. Fortunately we have a highly respected regulatory body, the HFEA, who will only license research if it can be shown to be necessary.”

To see the full report, click here.

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