Stem cell research is a very controversial topic, especially in Atlanta, Georgia. Nevertheless, in Atlanta on Friday, October 8th, an unnamed partially paralyzed human officially became the first person treated with embryonic stem cells.
An article by Atlanta Journal-Constituion reporters, Craig Schneider and Katie Leslie, revealed that the patient was injected with millions of embryonic stem cells in an unidentified Atlanta area hospital on Friday, October 8th. After receiving the treatment, he patient was then admitted to the Shepherd Center, an advanced rehabilitation facility in Atlanta that specializes in treating patients with brain and spinal cord injuries. CNN reports that the patient is enrolled in an FDA-approved clinical trial being conducted at the Shepherd Center.
To some, Atlanta may seem an interesting location choice for the site of America’s very first stem cell treatment. Many Georgians are strongly opposed to stem cell research, considering it a “moral atrocity”, because harvesting the stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos. Many right-to-life advocates see stem cell research and treatment as akin to abortion. In fact, a number of Georgia politicians have introduced legislation to ban stem cell research in Georgia.
On the other hand, Atlanta is home to the Shepherd Center, one of the nation’s best rehabilitation hospitals and very well-known for its cutting-edge research in spinal cord and brain injuries. Geron Corporation, which sponsored the research, chose Atlanta because of the Shepherd Center’s excellence in helping people with spinal cord and brain injuries. The Atlanta area is also home to several universities involved with stem cell research, including Emory Univeristy, Georgia Tech, and the University of Georgia.
Geron Corporation’s controversial study did not receive any federal funding and was given final approval by the FDA in July 2010. At that point, the company started searching for the unnamed patient who would receive the first injection of embryonic stem cells. The stem cells used in this experimental treatment were harvested from leftover embryos at fertility clinics,
To qualify for the experimental treatment, the mystery patient had to meet stringent requirements. He or she had to have been between the ages of 18 and 65, and have suffered a complete thoracic spinal cord injury, which means that he or she is not capable of movement below the chest. Patients with such injuries can move their arms and heads as well as breathe on their own, but they can’t move their legs, nor do they have control over their bowels or bladder. The patient’s injury must have occurred between the third and tenth thoracic vertebrae and he or she must have also been injured within seven to 14 days before the treatment.
The primary focus of this experiment is to determine whether or not the treatment is safe. Researchers are studying whether or not the treatment may cause bad side effects or rejection in humans.
In this trial, the stem cells were converted to nerve cells. They were then injected into the damaged area of the patient’s spinal cord. Researchers hope that the stem cells will help restore movement by repairing the nerve cells in the damaged portion of the patient’s spinal cord. Doctors at the Shepherd Center will monitor the patient closely, watching for signs that he or she has regained sensation, as they note whether or not the patient experiences any adverse side effects. Their aim is not to treat the patient’s symptoms, but to use the embryonic stem cells to permanently regenerate tissue, which researchers hope would allow the patient to eventually be able to respond to physical therapy and regain some normal function after their paralysis.
Since this experiment has never been done before on a human, there is no way to tell when researchers might see results, positive or otherwise. But studies done on rats have been promising. Geron Corporation reports that some paralyzed rats regained their ability to walk after they were injected with stem cells. If this treatment is successful, it could be offered at seven sites around the United States. One other site that is currently recruiting patients is Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, Illinois.
While a lot of people may be upset at the prospect of embryonic stem cell research, I personally find it very exciting and will go on record as being in favor of it. The research was not funded by tax dollars and the embryos used were leftovers from fertility clinics. If they hadn’t been used for this research, they would have had to have been disposed of in some way. I don’t see how using an embryo to further medical science is any less respectful than otherwise disposing of it when it can’t be used in fertility treatment. What’s more, there are so many people with paralysis or other brain or spinal cord diseases who could greatly benefit from this treatment if it is successful.
I can also see how stem cell research can lead to an ethical slippery slope. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine how the business of stem cell collection and research could quickly turn into a big business. However, historically, many people have had ethical concerns about in-vitro fertilization and organ harvesting. Those two medical treatments are now accepted by many people as being morally okay.
I hope the scientists and medical professionals involved with stem cell research will continue to strive to maintain proper ethics. And I’m sure the vast majority of them will do so, because this research is too important not to warrant the utmost care and respect for human life.
Falco, Miriam. (October 11, 2010). “First human injected in human embryonic stem cell trial” Retrieved from http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/11/first-human-injected-in-human-embryonic-stem-cell-trial/?hpt=Sbin
Schneider, Craig and Leslie, Katie. (October 11, 2010). “First stem cell treatment for human administered in Atlanta” Retrieved from http://www.ajc.com/news/first-stem-cell-treatment-676895.html?cxtype=ynews_rss
Geron Corporation’s official Web site: www.geron.com
Northwestern Medicine’s official Web site: http://www.medicine.northwestern.edu/
Shepherd Center’s official Web site: http://www.shepherd.org/