HUMANS AS COMMODITIES ?
Grand Valley residents seeking stem cell therapies that come with ethical questions
By MELINDA MAWDSLEY
The Daily Sentinel
Friday, November 30, 2007
Rusty Leech wants to go to the bathroom on his own.
Jordanne Menzies hasn’t hugged her family or friends in nearly four years. She wants to, desperately, but she can’t lift her arms.
Improved quality of life has driven the paralyzed Grand Junction man and the Fruita woman to seek stem cell therapy to possibly help them regain some feeling and movement after a combined 13 years in wheelchairs.
Rusty and Jordanne call their ensuing treatments investments of hope, but both wish they didn’t have to fly thousands of miles for procedures they argue should be available in the United States.
But not everyone agrees that all forms of stem cell therapy have a place, here or overseas.
“We are opposed to anything making the sanctity of life into a utilitarian product,” said Leslie Hanks, vice president of Colorado Right to Life in Denver.
POTENTIAL AND CONTENTION
Rusty, 50, left Monday for India, where he and his wife Kathy will spend at least $35,000 for an embryonic stem cell therapy that might not work.
“I have to go there thinking this may not do it for me, but I hope it does,” he said.
Jordanne, 22, and her family plan to fly to San Jose, Costa Rica, in January for $17,000 of injections of stem cells taken from the umbilical cord of a healthy, live baby.
“I want this to work, so I’m going to try it at least,” she said.
Rusty and Jordanne researched numerous stem cell treatment options and potential risks and rewards before deciding to fly to India and Costa Rica, respectively. Both had to apply and be accepted by the therapy programs.
The medical procedures are not matters of life or death. They also are not guaranteed cures.
Stem cells are essentially the building blocks of the human body.
There are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult.
Embryonic stem cells are found in human embryos as young as 5 days old and have the potential to become any type of cell or tissue, according to Teresa Coons, senior scientist at St. Mary’s Saccomanno Research Institute in Grand Junction.
When an embryo becomes a fetus, at about 8-weeks, stem cells typically have become coded for whatever cell or tissue they will become. They also contain antigen proteins genetically specific to the person they are from, Coons said.
Stem cells found in an umbilical cord have the ability to become many cell types, however, there are limitations.
Adult stem cells found in organs and tissue such as bone marrow of anyone — baby to grandmother — are coded and can only develop into a specific type of cell or tissue, Coons said.
The seemingly limitless potential of stem cells is why medical research is focused on developing them to treat diseases and terminal conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and paralysis.
“Just within the last five years, there started being some therapies that had promise,” said Rusty, who has been a paraplegic for nine years.
About two weeks ago, in fact, two separate scientific teams — from the University of Wisconsin and Japan — claimed to have reprogrammed adult skin cells to take on the power of stem cells. Human embryos weren’t involved.
Research continues around the world. Both Michael J. Fox, of “Family Ties” and “Back To the Future” fame, and Christopher Reeve, known for his film role as Superman, have foundations to raise awareness for stem cell research. The Christopher Reeve Foundation “supports the responsible pursuit of human embryonic stem cell research.”
Reeve became a quadriplegic in a 1995 equestrian accident. He died in 2004.
Fox has Parkinson’s disease. His foundation tracks medical developments, including stem cell research, at www.michaeljfox.org. It also supports embryonic stem cell research.
President George W. Bush, who has long taken a stance against embryonic stem cell research because embryos are destroyed in the process, praised the recent scientific findings in a statement.
“The president believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino in the statement. “We will continue to encourage scientists to expand the frontiers of stem cell research and continue to advance the understanding of human biology in an ethically responsible way.”
Colorado Right to Life and Focus on the Family, both based in Colorado, are just two organizations opposed to embryonic stem cell research but not necessarily against advancements in all stem cell medical research.
“It is never morally or ethically justified to kill one human being in order to help benefit another,” said a Focus on the Family statement on its Web site, www.family.org. “Opposing the willful destruction of human embryos for medical research does not mean that stem cell research cannot proceed. Focus on the Family encourages scientists to continue to explore stem cells found in other sources, including blood and skin cells, bone marrow and umbilical-cord blood.”
‘I HAVE TO TAKE A CHANCE’
Hanks said she personally doesn’t have an issue with stem cell therapy when adult stem cells or stem cells from umbilical cords are used as long humans were not harmed or killed in the process.
Jordanne, a quadriplegic for nearly four years, will receive four stem cell injections directly into the spot of her injury — the C-3, C-4 and C-5 vertebrae on her neck — at the Institute of Cellular Medicine in San Jose, Costa Rica.
She will be in Costa Rica for one week. At least one doctor and an nurse from the United States work at the institute.
Jordanne said she researched clinics around the world, but the Costa Rican clinic was the first one where she actually found the admission application to download. She took it as a sign. Jordanne was accepted into the program earlier this year.
“It feels right,” she said. “It’s the right timing, and it’s going to happen. ... The best case scenario? I don’t know. Getting everything back would be awesome, but getting an arm back would be very cool, too. I would probably give everybody a hug.”
The stem cells to be injected into Jordanne were harvested from the umbilical cords of healthy full-term babies after birth, which Jordanne said was important to her.
Although Hanks was unfamiliar with umbilical-cord stem cell therapy, she did not see any controversy in the method Jordanne selected.
“I can’t think of a drawback of umbilical-cord blood,” Hanks said.
However, Jordanne’s therapy does have an added risk because she is receiving umbilical-cord stem cells containing antigen proteins genetically specific to another person. She expects to have to take medication so her body doesn’t reject the stem cells.
There also is the possibility that tumors and cancerous lesions could form as her body fights the introduced cells.
Rusty considered flying to Turkey for a treatment using adult stem cells taken from bone marrow, but he changed his mind after reading an article by Dr. S. Laurance Johnston in August’s Paraplegia News magazine. It touted the embryonic stem cell therapy being conducted by Dr. Geeta Shroff, an Indian infertility expert.
The buzz about Shroff gave Rusty a glimmer of hope.
Shroff’s clinic is one of the first publicly known clinics in the world to use human embryonic stem cells for therapy, wrote Johnston, who is the former director of research and education at the National Office of Paralyzed of America. He now writes reviews of potential stem cell treatments for the magazine.
Embryonic stem cell therapy also has risks, but since the cells aren’t specifically coded Rusty won’t have to take anti-rejection medication.
By now, Rusty should be at Shroff’s Nu Tech Mediworld clinic in Delhi, India. He will be there until early February receiving daily stem cell therapy.
His treatment includes physical therapy to rebuild atrophied muscle and stem cell injections into his veins, muscles and the spinal site of his injury — the T-10 vertebrae.
“It is about six hours daily of injection and therapy,” he said.
The stem cells for Rusty’s treatment were harvested from a single embryo created from a human egg fertilized in a Petri dish.
Shroff developed stem cell lines from the embryo with permission from the donors, who likely would have discarded it as a excess embryo, according to Johnston’s article.
The stem cell lines target specific disorders such as spinal cord injuries.
The embryo was destroyed; however, the scientific procedure has been used to help approximately 300 people, Johnston wrote.
“That’s destroying a human life for somebody else’s benefit,” Hanks said. “God has not granted us the authority. Talk about playing God. That is absolutely wrong.”
Leech said he is aware of the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell therapy.
He has not received flak from friends for his decision to receive the treatment. He is hopeful he will not receive any criticism for his choice.
“To me, you are limiting caring for people,” Rusty said of withholding certain medical treatments for moral reasons. “You have taken medical science away from trying to care for people. I’m tired of being controlled. How is that taking care of your people?”
Rusty has read about stem cell procedures using shark and pig stem cells. He admittedly has been skeptical of many treatments he has read about on the Internet.
“You have to take a leap of faith,” Rusty said. “This is the best I’ve found. I think I have to take a chance.”
Melinda Mawdsley can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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