Scientists Make Stem Cell Breakthrough
Cures for diabetes, Alzheimer’s and spinal cord damage could be as little as five years away, after the landmark creation of more than one million stem cells from a single Australian embryo.
The work of Sydney IVF’s research laboratories, the achievement is the first time Australian scientists have cultured embryonic stem cells from an Australian embryo on home turf.
Although legal hurdles have set the nation’s stem cell research two years behind the United States-led cutting edge, Sydney IVF medical director Professor Robert Jansen is confident of catching up.
“There are several hurdles, … but there’s a small chance it will be inside five years,” Jansen said of the possible therapeutic uses of cultured embryonic stem cells.
One of those hurdles has already been overcome by research director Dr Tomas Stojanov and his team – the need to grow the cells on human “feeder layers” rather than culturing them on mouse cells.
However, safety and anti-contamination guidelines are yet to be drawn up, the issue of tissue rejection by stem cell recipients must be overcome and scientists need to work out how to generate enough cells to meet demand.
“At the moment … there are not enough lines for research and future clinical use,” Stojanov said.
The Sydney team is now trying to automate the process of extracting viable cells from unwanted five-day-old embryos, so they can produce stem cells in much greater volumes.
Millions of cells would need to be injected as a treatment for just one patient, Stojanov explained.
The cells cultivated by the Sydney IVF team remain undifferentiated, meaning they have the potential to turn into any cell in the human body.
There’s already a huge demand for the IVF clinic’s stem cells, from medical research scientists who plan to turn them into nerve, heart and pancreatic cells, among others.
“The obvious direction of the research is the treatment of serious childhood and adult diseases where cells are lost or damaged or destroyed and can’t be replaced by the body’s own stem cells,” he said.
“That’s true of some tissues more than others, particularly the brain and spinal cord (and) in childhood diabetes, where the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas have lost their function or are so depleted in number they can’t do their job.”
Conditions that have the potential to be treated with stem cells include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, motor neuron disease, spinal cord and brain damage, diabetes and heart conditions.
The clinic won licenses in April to cultivate stem cells from as many as 600 embryos, after the federal government legislated to allow research on human embryos.
In May this year the clinic thawed an embryo frozen in March 2000, then extracted cells from its center and placed them on a human cell-based “feeder” culture to grow.
There are strict criteria for the harvesting of stem cells – the embryos must have been created for the purpose of assisted reproduction and the permission of its parents must be obtained.
The embryo also must be one that would otherwise have been discarded, but that doesn’t excuse the research in the eyes of Right To Life Australia or the Catholic church.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right – they should not have created excess embryos in the first place,” said Margaret Tighe, president of Right To Life Australia.
“Quite clearly this involves the destruction of a very small human being for the benefit of other human beings.”
Even if embryonic stem cells could save a loved one, Tighe said she would remain against the research going ahead.
The Life Office, an agency of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, condemned the research as unethical and scientifically unnecessary.
“Although embryonic stem cells have been used for research around the world for some time, there have been no human trials and there are still no approved medical treatments,” Life Office executive officer Dr Brigid Vout said.
“It is research using stem cells from adults which holds the greatest therapeutic promise.
“Adult stem cells are already being successfully used to cure disease or overcome injury in patients.”
Jansen acknowledged that a cure is yet to be effected using embryonic stem cells, but pointed out that the research had only been given legislative approval after vigorous and protracted debate.
“I’m very proud that Australia has risen to the occasion legislatively to permit this,” he said.
Prime Minister John Howard also reiterated that the work was legal.
“I support very much the law that was agreed upon at the premiers’ conference in 2002 and I want that law observed,” Howard told reporters.
More than half of the clients at Sydney IVF were in favor of donating their excess embryos for stem cell research, Jansen added.
“I think most couples, when they’ve had such an amount of difficulty getting pregnant, realize that their success has depended on people who’ve donated embryos before for research,” he explained.
The couple who donated the embryo used to cultivate the stem cells revealed today were “absolutely delighted”, Jansen said.